Heather Felton
Heather M. Felton, M.D.

As temperatures continue to plunge, University of Louisville pediatrician Heather M. Felton, M.D., reminds parents and other caregivers that children are more vulnerable to cold weather than grown-ups.

“Children exposed to extreme cold for too long and without warm, dry, breathable clothing can get frostbite or life-threatening hypothermia,” Felton said. “Children are more at risk from the cold than adults. Because their bodies are smaller, they lose heat more quickly.”

The medical director of the University of Louisville Pediatrics Clinic at Sam Swope Kosair Charities Centre, Felton provides the following advice on how to handle frostbite and hypothermia in little ones:

Frostbite: Frostbite happens when the skin, and sometimes the tissue below it, freezes. Fingers, toes, ears and noses are most likely to get frostbite. Frostbitten skin may start to hurt or feel like it’s burning, then quickly go numb. It may turn white or pale gray and form blisters. 

What to do:

  • If you suspect frostbite, bring your child indoors to gently warm up. Don’t rub the affected area, and don’t pop any blisters.
  • Avoid placing anything hot directly on the skin. Soak frostbitten areas of the body in warm – not hot – water for 20 to 30 minutes. Warm washcloths can be applied to frostbitten noses, ears and lips.
  • After a few minutes, dry and cover your child with blankets. Give him or her something warm to drink.
  • If the pain or numbness continues for more than a few minutes, call your pediatrician.

Hypothermia: When the body’s temperature drops below normal from the cold, dangerous hypothermia begins to set in. A child may start shivering, a sign the body is trying to warm itself up, but then become sluggish, clumsy or slur words. 

What to do:

  • Hypothermia is a medical emergency, so call 911 immediately.
  • Until help arrives, bring your child indoors. Remove any wet clothing, which draws heat away from the body.
  • Wrap your child in blankets or warm clothes, and give him or her something warm to drink.
  • Cover core body areas like the chest and abdomen.
  • If your child stops breathing or loses a pulse, give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or CPR.

Preventing frostbite or hypothermia

“Frostbite and hypothermia are different conditions, but some wintertime planning and safety steps can help protect your child from both,” said Felton, who also cares for patients at Norton Children’s Hospital. She provides the following tips to parents:

  • Check the wind chill: In general, playing outside in temperatures or wind chills below minus-15 degrees Fahrenheit should be avoided. At these temperatures, exposed skin begins to freeze within minutes. When possible, children waiting for school buses should wait inside their home or car with parents to avoid exposure.
  • What to wear: Several thin layers will help keep kids warm and dry. Insulated boots, mittens or gloves, and a hat are essential. Make sure children change out of any wet clothes right away.
  • Take breaks: Set reasonable limits on the amount of time spent playing outside to prevent hypothermia and frostbite. Make sure kids have a place to go for regular indoor breaks to warm up.

The Pediatrics Clinic at Sam Swope Kosair Charities Centre is part of UofL Physicians and is located at 982 Eastern Parkway.