Winter weather dangers: Know the signs of hypothermia and frostbite

Winter in the Midwest offers many opportunities for family fun. Sledding, skating, snowball fights, skiing and snowboarding are all great exercise and a chance to create great family memories. However, it is important to take the right precautions to safely enjoy the winter weather and prevent cold-related injuries such as hypothermia and frostbite.

Layers are key

Always dress yourself and your child in multiple layers. Fleece and down-filled clothing offer very good protection. Inner layers that wick away moisture and outer layers that are wind and waterproof work best. Insulated boots are a must. As a mom and doctor, I was very happy when sheepskin-lined boots became fashionable. Don’t forget the hats and gloves, and keep in mind that mittens are actually warmer than gloves.

What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia occurs after prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. The body becomes excessively cold and cannot warm up on its own. Normally, our body temperature is 98.6 degrees. Hypothermia is defined as a core temperature of 95 degrees or below. Children and infants are more susceptible to hypothermia. Children’s bodies have increased heat loss and they may be unable to recognize dangerous conditions. Infants cannot increase their body temperature through shivering, and as a result become cold very quickly.

What are the changes that occur with hypothermia?

Initially the body tries to increase its temperature through shivering. As hypothermia progresses, the body can no longer compensate. Shivering may stop and a child may have difficulty breathing or speaking, and become disoriented and confused. These are signs of more severe hypothermia.

How can I help?

If you think a child might have hypothermia, move the child to a warm environment immediately. Remove all wet or cold clothing and cover him with blankets. If the child is able to drink then offer hot liquids such as tea or soup. If a child is so cold that he is no longer shivering, has breathing problems or changes in consciousness, then seek emergency care immediately.

In most cases, getting to a warm place will be enough to reverse the problem. However, severe hypothermia will require emergency care.

What is frostbite?

Frostbite is damage to body tissue caused by freezing. The skin is most commonly affected, but in severe cases the muscle and bone can also be affected. The head, face, ears, hands and feet can freeze quickly and are the most commonly affected areas. Children are more susceptible to frostbite because they lose heat more rapidly and it’s hard to get them to go back inside if they are having fun!

What are the signs of frostbite?

Skin affected by frostbite appears white or gray and may feel hard to the touch. Extremities affected by frostbite may feel stiff, achy and be difficult to move. Blisters may form in some areas, and blackened skin is a sign of severe frostbite.

How can I help?

Move the child to a warmer environment and remove wet clothing. Soak the affected body parts in WARM (not hot) water for about 20 minutes until sensation returns. Remember that the areas affected by frostbite are numb and may not feel the sensation of the water being too hot. For that reason, avoid putting the hands over a fire or on a heat source as well. You can also warm the cold body parts by gently holding them and applying natural body heat. Avoid rubbing the area and do not rub it with snow.

Rewarming the frostbitten area may be painful, and the skin may blister and turn red or purple. Sensation should return to normal and the skin will appear pink as the area thaws. However, if the frostbite symptoms do not improve with these steps, seek emergency medical treatment as soon as possible.

Prevention is critical

In very cold temperatures, being outside for even a few minutes can cause hypothermia or frostbite. Dress your whole family warmly and limit the time your child plays outside. Planning ahead and wearing appropriate clothing will ensure that your child can safely enjoy the season.

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