Friday, November 9, 2012

How to avoid/identify/treat frostbite on hikes

Frostbite occurs when the fluid inside a cell freezes; the cell
then ruptures. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
You shouldn’t hike in weather cold enough to give kids frostbite. That doesn’t mean no hiking during winter, so long as the child is properly clothed. There are winter days, though, when the temperature and wind chill are so low that no amount of bundling up will keep a child warm. In addition, sometimes on days that start pleasant the weather changes unexpectedly, leaving you caught and unprepared in cold weather.

Frostbite occurs when the fluid inside the body’s cells freeze. As this fluid freezes, it expands, rupturing and killing the cells. Frostbite starts in extremities – usually the nose, ears, toes, fingers and cheeks – and then moves toward the core of body. As extremities chill, the body automatically restricts blood flow, further lowering the body temperature. Children lose their core temperatures more quickly than do adults, so they will suffer frostbite sooner.

Avoid frostbite by dressing children properly, especially with clothing that will prevent them from getting wet. Don’t leave any part of body exposed to cold. Have younger children wear mittens rather than gloves, as this will keep their fingers close together to maintain warmth. Also, take infants and toddlers out of carriers regularly so they can stretch and to ensure good circulation. If children tell you they are cold, take it seriously.

Symptoms of frostbite include reddening skin that eventually turns white then blue or black, a prickling pain in the skin, numbness, and skin feeling hard and waxy.

To treat, get the child to a warm place and remove wet and restrictive clothing. Warm affected areas with body heat, such as placing the child’s fingers under armpits or against the stomach. The child’s toes can be placed in a hiking partner’s armpits. Do not use heating pads, hot water, or stove heat to thaw affected areas as the child probably will not feel if he is being burned. Also, don’t rub or massage the affected area as this can damage the skin. After warming, loosely bandage the affected area to protect the skin until feeling returns. If the child needs to walk, do not thaw a frostbitten foot.

Read more about day hiking with children in my guidebook Hikes with Tykes.