Winter weather tips to prevent frostbite and hypothermia

Chicago-area winters are long and can be dreadfully cold, but why does it seem to not bother our little ones?

While adults might long for warmer days, kids wish for snow days and winter fun. Dr. Ken Polin, a pediatrician at Lurie Children's Primary Care - Town & Country Pediatrics, provides insight to why kids don't seem to mind the frigid temps, and tips for preventing frostbite and hypothermia.

“Kids and consequences just don't go together; they are happy to do things and just like to play. They enjoy the experience more than the environment and this is why they will play outside even on the coldest of days,” Polin said.

Playing outside is fine even in cold weather. “With the appropriate circumstances there isn't a certain temperature necessarily. That said, other elements such as wind chill should be considered and monitored before allowing kids outdoors in the cold,” he added.

Kids don't identify when they're too cold and may exceed a reasonable experience outside when it's taking place. Younger kids who have a larger surface area relative to their body size will more rapidly lose heat and become at risk of hypothermia. As body temperature drops, metabolism changes and the blood flow to your brain drops, so a child's ability to recognize that they're in trouble may not be there in the same respect that an adult may experience or recognize.

“Younger infants can't communicate and therefore their mechanisms for maintaining body temperature are different” said Polin. “They cannot shiver like we do and instead they decrease circulation to their hands and feet, which is why when they're cold their hands may turn blue. They try to retain heat instead of generating it.”

Hypothermia vs. frostbite

Hypothermia is a generalized condition where the body temperature drops and as a result there are all sorts of metabolic things going on. Your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced.

Frostbite is a focal condition where a focal or multiple parts of the body can be involved. Frostbite usually affects peripheral tissue such as ears, fingers and nose. The tissue is deprived of oxygen and blood.

“Just a few minutes outside in extreme temps can cause exposed skin to be at risk for frostbite. But with proper layering, you can protect against frostbite and other risks,” said Polin.

Signs of frostbite include numbness, burning, pain and red, white or bluish-white skin.

Hypothermia usually presents with more subtle signs such as: body temperature below 95 degrees, confusion, altered level of consciousness, slurred speech, low energy or drowsiness, shivering, bright red, cold skin (in infants), and eventually coma.

To effectively treat frostbite, Polin recommends:

• Get the child out of the cold and out of wet clothing.

• Gentle warming with warm water (not hot) that's a tad higher than body temperature.

• This will improve circulation and stop progression of frostbite.

• This may hurt initially but will get better as the body starts warming.

• If the skin starts to blister, this is a sign of severe frostbite and one should seek out specific medical attention.

To treat hypothermia, seeking help at an emergency room is the best course of action. “If you are truly hypothermic and it gets severe, one can suffer cardiac arrest. Rewarming needs to be done not just externally but internally. Medical professionals will warm the body with warm IV fluids and warming lamps,” Polin said. “Kids are more at risk for hypothermia because they have a larger surface area relative to their weight so they have a larger area to lose heat.”

It's important to stay active and get outside even during winter months and, with proper precautions and clothing, it can be done safely and happily.

• Children's health is a continuing series. This week's article is courtesy of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. For more information, visit

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