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How To Treat Frostnip (Caution: It’s Different Than Frostbite)

How to treat frostnip and frostbite in children

NOTE: THE FOLLOWING INFORMATION OF HOW TO TREAT FROSTNIP AND FROSTBITE APPLIES TO BOTH KIDS AND ADULTS!

Nothing will ruin a winter adventure faster than your kids getting frostnip or frostbite. And it happens all the time. One minute you’re having fun building a snowman and the next your kid’s falling apart at the seams as the tingling in their fingertips turns to pins and needles…or worse.

Kids fall victim to the cold for a few reasons. A big one is they ignore the signs of discomfort simply so they can stay outside and play longer. Another reason is that kids’ hands and bodies are smaller than adults’, so there’s less blood pumping around and less body fat to insulate them. They just lose body heat quicker.

But, before we get too far down this frosty road, let’s take a minute to define our terms and the symptoms of frostnip and frostbite for kids.

FROSTNIP SYMPTOMS

Frostnip is much less dangerous and much more common than frostbite. Just about everyone has experienced frostnip. The outermost layers of skin may approach freezing, but there is no damage to cells. Skin becomes cold, turns red, you may start to feel a tingling, painful sensation. If you start to feel numbness, it’s just on the very tips of your extremities.

Frostnip usually targets cheeks, nose, ears, fingers, and toes. As they warm up, fingers and toes can feel especially painful as they have more nerve endings. Frostnip does not create any long term damage.

FROSTBITE SYMPTOMS

Frostbite = frozen flesh. As in the fluids in your tissues actually turn to ice. Skin turns white as blood leaves the affected area and becomes numb. If you lose all sensation of cold or pain, then immediate treatment is required.

The severity of frostbite is based on how deep the flesh is frozen. Mild cases will only freeze superficial layers of skin. Dead skin will just peel away in a few days. The worst cases will freeze muscle and bone. At this point, you’re losing large chunks of fingertips, ears and toes. Most kids don’t have to worry about frostbite unless you’re a family of hardcore mountaineers or get stuck outside in a blizzard.

HOW TO TREAT FROSTNIP AT HOME

When you’re at home or have access to indoor shelter, your biggest challenge will be to get your kids to stop playing. Although, the more painful the frostnip the easier it’ll be. Once you’ve put an end to their polar playtime, here’s what you need to do to treat your child’s frostnip:

  1. Get your kid out of the cold immediately and inside where it’s warm.
  2. Get them out of their wet gloves, hats, scarves, and socks.
  3. Gently and slowly warm the frostnipped areas. There are several safe ways to do so:
    • Cup your hands around the affected area and blow warm air.
    • Immerse the affected area in water that’s roughly body temperature, between 97 and 99 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer handy, just know that the water should feel very warm—not quite as hot as a hot tub or bath water. This can take up to 30 minutes.
    • Give your child warm liquids like tea, hot cocoa, or soup.
  4. Rewarming will likely cause a painful burning sensation. Assure your child that it’s natural and temporary. It will only last a few minutes.
  5. NEVER rub frostnipped areas. If numb, you can cause bruising or worse tissue damage because you’re unable to tell how much pressure to apply.
  6. NEVER use heating pads, fireplaces, or stoves to rewarm because of the risk of burning numb skin.
  7. Monitor your child’s behavior and make sure they get feeling back in the frostnipped areas. If all goes well, there should be no need to go to your doctor.

HOW TO TREAT FROSTNIP IN THE WILD

Treating frostnip in the wild is a little different than at home, but the principles remain the same.

  1. Get your child out of the cold and into your tent or yurt or whatever shelter you have to block the wind. Large boulders, trees, and bushes can also serve as windbreaks.
  2. Remove their wet clothing from the frostnipped areas.
  3. Gently warm the frostnipped areas with these techniques:
    • Cup your hands around the affected area and blow warm air. Note that the moisture from your breath can have a cooling effect on your child’s skin. It’s a good idea to wrap the affected area with a layer of dry clothing to capture any moisture before blowing on it.
    • If your hands are relatively warm, place your bare hands on the affected area: cheeks, ears, nose.
    • When hands are the issue, have your child place their bare hands in their armpits.
    • If feet are the issue, have your child place their bare feet on your stomach and cover them with your upper body layers.
    • Wrap them up in dry blankets, sleeping bags or another jacket if you have one to spare.
    • Use hand or feet warmer packets if you have them in your first aid kit.
    • Give your child warm liquids from an insulated bottle if you have one.
  4. In the wild, even frostnip should be treated seriously. It can easily and quickly turn into frostbite if you’re not careful.

HOW TO TREAT FROSTBITE AT HOME & IN THE WILD

Frostbite is no joke whether you’re at home or in the wild. Your location doesn’t matter. You need to get to an emergency room ASAP. To treat frostbite, you can follow the same steps as shown above for frostnip, but there are some key differences.

  1. Get to an emergency room immediately. This is so important it’s worth repeating. You’re working with minutes or hours here. The sooner you get medical help the better your chances of saving body parts. If you go longer than 24 hours without help from a doctor, things get ugly.
  2. If feet are frostbitten, do not let your child walk. Carry them. Walking on frostbitten toes and feet can cause even more damage.
  3. NEVER warm the affected area if there’s a chance it could refreeze. The freezing and thawing process if repeated will cause even more tissue damage. Doctors suggest that you should only attempt warming frostbitten areas if you are more than 2 hours away from an emergency room and there is no risk of refreezing.
  4. Be mentally prepared that the freezing and thawing process is extremely painful. Don’t tell your child it’s not as bad as they think. Be honest and affirm that it’s painful, but that you are doing everything you can to take care of them.

Your best course of action is to avoid frostnip and frostbite altogether. Lead by example. Don’t be a tough guy. Your kids watch everything you do and follow suit. They already think you’re a superhero, so you’ve got nothing to prove to them. Get in the habit of wearing hats, gloves, and layers when temps drop. Or at the very least, have them handy so your kids see you’re prepared with the right gear.

Keep these tips in mind and frostnip and frostbite won’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of ruining your winter play.

Need more ideas to warm up your kids? Be totally prepared for any cold-weather adventure with Snow Dadventure Kits >

Steve Lemig

Steve Lemig is the founder of Wilderdad. He's been a lot of things over the years. Skateboarder. Mountain biker. Climber. Snowboarder. Bike mechanic. Forest firefighter. Woodworker. Creative director. These days he's a runner, writer, husband, and father. He writes stories to empower dads and encourage them to share outdoor adventures with their kids as a tool to strengthen families and build respect for the environment. He has also been the Managing Editor at Road Runner Sports for the last 11 years.

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