Frostbite happens when skin tissues freeze after being exposed to the extreme cold, usually temperatures below 0°C.
Frostbite can range in severity:
- Mild frostbite (or frostnip) doesn’t cause permanent damage to the skin.
- Severe frostbite can permanently damage the muscles and fat underneath the skin.
The severity of frostbite depends on the air temperature, length of time outside, wind chill, dampness of skin and the type of clothing worn.
Children are at higher risk of frostbite than adults because they lose heat from the skin faster. They might develop frostbite if they:
- play in the cold or snow for a long time
- wear clothes that aren’t warm enough for the outside temperature
- wear gloves, boots, socks and other clothes that are too tight
- are exposed to high winds while outside
- apply ice to an injury for too long
- have a medical condition that reduces blood to the fingers or toes.
Symptoms of frostbite
If your child has mild frostbite, their skin might:
- go red, white or purplish-blue
- tingle or feel cold or numb
- itch or throb with pain
- feel hard and look waxy.
The skin should return to normal when your child warms up gently indoors.
If your child has more severe frostbite, they might get blisters or sores in the affected area. Or the skin might go black.
Your child is most likely to get frostbite on their fingers, feet and toes. They might also get it on their cheeks, nose and earlobes.
Does your child need to see a doctor about frostbite?
For mild frostbite, probably not. You can usually treat mild frostbite at home. But here’s when to seek urgent medical attention:
- The first aid treatment below isn’t effective.
- Blisters appear in the frostbitten area.
- Your child is drowsy and shivering.
- Your child has a body temperature of less than 35°C.
- Your child has been exposed to extreme cold conditions.
For moderate to severe frostbite, your child needs urgent medical attention – dial 000 for an ambulance.
First aid treatment for mild frostbite
First aid should work for mild frostbite.
Here’s what to do:
- Move your child indoors to a warmer area.
- Dress your child in warm, soft, dry clothes.
- Wrap your child in warm blankets or towels.
- Put the affected area in warm water that’s between 38°C and 41°C.
- Give your child warm fluids to drink.
- Don’t let your child walk if their feet are affected, because this can cause tissue damage.
You should avoid:
- rapidly heating the skin, because this can cause tissue damage
- using a direct heat like a fire or heater, because this can result in a skin burn
- rubbing the area or bursting any blisters, because this can injure tissues.
The rewarming process might take up to 30 minutes. If rewarming works, your child’s skin should start going a pinkish-red colour again.
Your child might start to complain of pain as the frostbite reverses. If this happens, you can give your child pain relief like paracetamol or ibuprofen according to the instructions on the packet.
Place clean cotton wool or gauze between frostbitten fingers and toes after rewarming. Loosely wrap these areas with clean bandages to prevent refreezing if your child is going outside again to see a doctor.
You can use first aid treatment for moderate to severe frostbite if you can’t get medical help quickly and your child is inside with no risk of refreezing. You should still get medical help for your child as soon as possible.
Treatment for moderate to severe frostbite
Moderate to severe frostbite needs treatment in a hospital. Hospital treatment might involve:
- carefully rewarming the skin and body using specialised machines and blankets
- giving your child warm fluids into a vein.
Children might be given medications like pain relief, antibiotics and tetanus vaccination.
Any wounds will be covered with specialised dressing. And if children have dead skin tissue, they might need surgery to get it removed.
Prevention of frostbite
It’s much easier to prevent frostbite than treat it.
Here’s how to prevent frostbite:
- Minimise time outdoors in very cold weather.
- Dress in layers of warm clothing including a jacket, gloves and long pants.
- If clothing gets wet, change it as soon as possible.
- Cover heads and ears with beanies – children lose most heat through their heads.
- Wear waterproof boots to prevent feet getting wet and cold.
- If your family is going to the snow, make sure you have waterproof clothing.
- Have regular drinks to stay hydrated and keep your blood flowing.