Causes of frostbite

Frostbite is caused by direct exposure to extreme cold, which temporarily freezes the exposed skin.

Frostbite might happen after a child has played in the snow without wearing enough protective clothing like waterproof gloves and shoes. It might also happen in an instant if your child touches very cold metal.

Frostbite symptoms

Skin with frostbite goes white or purplish-blue and cold, and your child might complain of tingling, numbness, itching or throbbing pain in the affected area. The skin feels hard, and has a waxy appearance.

In more severe frostbite, your child might get blisters in the affected area.

Your child is most likely to get frostbite on her fingers, feet and toes. She might also get it on her cheeks, nose and earlobes.

When to see a doctor about frostbite

Frostbite always needs urgent medical attention. You should get medical attention as quickly as possible if:

  • blisters appear in the frostbitten area
  • the treatment below isn't effective
  • your child is drowsy and shivering
  • your child has been exposed to extreme cold conditions.

Frostbite treatment

Get your child out of the cold environment immediately. Bring him inside if at all possible.

Your child should be seen by a doctor as soon as possible.

If you can't get your child to a hospital immediately, and if there's a delay until an ambulance or doctor can get to you, start the following treatment straight away:

  • Don't let your child walk if her feet are affected (this can cause further tissue damage).
  • Remove any wet clothing.
  • Dress your child in warm, soft, dry clothes.
  • Warm the rest of your child's body by wrapping him in blankets.
  • Give your child warm fluids to drink.
  • Warm the frozen body parts in warm (not hot) water, slightly above normal body temperature.

The rewarming process might take up to 30 minutes. You should try it only if you can't get medical help quickly and your child is inside with no risk of refreezing.

Be very careful to gently rewarm the frostbitten area. Don't place the frostbitten body part directly in front of a heater, fireplace or other source of dry heat. The frostbitten skin is very sensitive and can easily burn.

Don't rub the area or burst any blisters because this can injure the tissues further.

Your child might start to complain of pain as the frostbite reverses, so you could give her some pain relief like paracetamol.

If rewarming works, your child's skin should start going a pinkish-red colour again.

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 on the way to the doctor.

It's very important to avoid rapid temperature changes to the affected area, because this can lead to permanent tissue injury.

Prevention of frostbite

You and your child can avoid frostbite by ensuring that your child is dressed in warm layers including hat, gloves, warm socks and shoes. If you go to the snow, make sure that your child has waterproof clothing.

Offer your child regular drinks to maintain hydration and healthy circulation.