The Chilling Truth: Frostbite Requires Medical Attention


Parents have been asking me some cool questions about how to recognize whether or not their child has frostbite. Let me see if I can warm things up and provide some information on this topic.

Frostbite is literally frozen body tissue. It usually affects the skin, but sometimes it involves deeper tissues. Since children lose heat more quickly than adults, they are at greater risk for frostbite. This is especially true when they are reluctant to stop playing outside and come inside to warm up.

The mildest and earliest form of frostbite is frostnip, which affects the cheeks, nose, ears, fingers, and toes. A symptom of frostnip is small, exposed areas becoming red and tingly after a child comes inside to warm up.

Treatment is fairly simple. Just remove all wet clothing and put the chilled body parts in warm, not hot, water for 15-20 minutes. Or you can wait until normal sensation returns, which should happen.

Full-blown frostbite is white, waxy skin that feels numb and hard. It requires medical attention. While driving your child to the ED or waiting for an ambulance, here are some things you can do:

  • First and foremost, get your child into a warm environment and dry clothing.
  • Do not try to thaw out frostbite, unless you are in a warm place, ideally the Emergency Department.
  • Carry your child if their feet are frostbitten; don’t have them walk.
  • Give them a warm drink.

The best way to deal with frostbite, of course, is prevention:

  • Dress in lots of layers, removing layers if they are too hot.
  • Choose fabrics other than cotton, since cotton does not keep you very warm. Thermal or woolen underwear is a great first layer.
  • Heavy socks and waterproof boots are a must.
  • Keep your child’s head covered to prevent loss of body heat. Scarves, face masks, and ear muffs, mittens or gloves help retain body heat, too.
  • Keep your child hydrated to keep blood circulating to the end tissues, including fingers and toes.
  • Set time limits on outdoor play in the cold to avoid frostbite and hypothermia.

What are some warning signs of frostbite that you can share to share with your child? Here are some signs that they need to come inside before frostbite sets in:

  • If they begin to shiver or their teeth chatter while playing outside
  • If they feel dizzy or appear clumsy
  • If they cannot feel their fingers, toes, cheeks, ears, or nose

Hopefully tips like these will melt away any concerns you have when it comes to knowing more about frostbite.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.  You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at

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