Contributor: James Mandelik, MD
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
When bitterly cold temperatures hit, you have to be careful to avoid staying out in the frigid air for too long. A cold weather emergency can happen relatively quickly, especially with children.
Your child should never leave the house without a hat in this kind of weather. Children, especially younger children, can lose a third of their body heat through their heads when they’re outside, so make sure they are properly dressed.
Extreme cold can cause two potentially serious conditions: hypothermia and frostbite.
Hypothermia is when the core body temperature falls below 95 degrees and is potentially dangerous. Extremely cold temperatures can increase the risk of developing hypothermia.
Early signs of hypothermia include:
- Intense shivering
- Cold and pale skin
- Slow breathing
- Irregular pulse
To decrease the risk of hypothermia, dress your children in layers. A hat, mittens and a scarf should not be considered optional.
The interesting thing about hypothermia is that you can develop it at any temperature, so it doesn’t have to be 10 below zero. It just has to be below your body temperature.
So say you live in Atlanta and like to wear shorts. If you go out in 40-degree weather wearing shorts, you can still develop hypothermia — and get really sick.
Is it frostbite?
If your child’s skin gets cold and red and your child says the skin is stinging or feels prickly, it’s time to go inside. Those are some of the first signs of frostbite.
Frostbite is the freezing of fluid in the cells. There are various degrees of frostbite.
Frostnip refers to a mild form of frostbite in which only the surface cells of the skin freeze, usually on the nose, ears, cheeks, fingers and toes. The affected skin may at first turn become flushed or reddened. Burning and tingling sensations also are common.
Frostnip is the most common type of frostbite. If identified early, frostnip can be reversed without any tissue damage.
The good news is that frostnip can be treated at home by submerging the area in warm water.
One important thing to remember is to avoid rubbing the affected area. Because frostbite damages the outer layers of skin, you can actually peel the skin off when you rub it.
It’s time to take your child to the emergency department if the skin is turning white or black or is blistering.