My children simply cannot get enough winter — the more snow there is on the ground, the more they want to go out and play. But I’m very concerned about the health risks posed by exposure to the cold weather. What conditions should I be especially watchful for, and what can I do to keep my children safe?
You’re right to be wary about the hazards of playing in the cold. Winter is not just cold and flu season: it’s also the season of frostbite, which — snowball fights notwithstanding — is the biggest threat that your children will face in the months ahead.
Frostbite occurs when the skin is exposed to extremely cold temperatures. Children are particularly susceptible to the condition. Unfortunately, parents often mistake the early indications of frostbite for the simple discomfort associated with exposure to the cold. Frostbite can happen quickly, and it doesn’t go away when you come inside to warm up; rather, it can cause permanent damage to the skin and nerves. In the most severe cases, amputation of the affected area is the only treatment.
Dressing appropriately for outdoor activity is the best way to avoid frostbite altogether. Make sure your children wear warm coats that are snug at the wrist. They should also wear hats, mittens, and a scarf or (in very cold weather) knit mask to cover their faces and mouths. For activities in which your children are exposed to snow, waterproof parkas or waterproof jackets are crucial, and layering several light fabrics such as wool, silk, or polypropylene will retain more body heat than one heavy layer of cotton. Finally, do not ignore shivering, an important first sign that the body is losing heat. Persistent shivering is the body’s way of saying that it’s time to take a break from wintry weather.
Frostbite begins with extreme redness, followed by a loss of feeling and color in the affected area. It appears most commonly on the extremities — the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. Make sure your children recognize the signs of frostbite, and know to get out of the cold and protect any exposed skin at the first signs of redness or pain. Once they are inside, you should seek medical care immediately. If medical attention is not readily available, anyone — young or old — with frostbite should stay in a warm room and immerse the frostbitten area in warm water. If warm water isn’t available, the affected body part can also be warmed against unexposed skin (such as under the armpits).
Almost as important as providing the correct treatment for frostbite is avoiding the “traditional” home remedies that, in fact, do far more harm than good. Heating pads, heat lamps, or the heat of stoves, fireplaces, or radiators for warming should be avoided; the affected skin is most likely numb, and can be easily burned by the heat. And, no matter what you have heard, under no circumstances should you massage or rub snow over the exposed skin; it will only cause additional damage.
There’s no reason for the cold to ruin your children’s winter of fun — with awareness, as well as the proper preparation and attire, your kids can have an active winter outdoors while keeping the frostbite at bay.