In this article:
Safety tips to help you and your family enjoy time outside during the winter months.
Children are at greater risk for frostbite and hypothermia because their smaller bodies lose heat more quickly than adult bodies.
Those with cardiovascular issues should be especially careful in cold weather.
Throughout the pandemic, getting outside has been a welcome respite from the stresses of virtual work and school, and extended periods of family togetherness. Though the temperatures are dropping, walking in a winter wonderland can still provide time in nature, exercise and much-needed family fun. We have to be careful, though, and plan for the risks of exposure to cold temperatures, especially if we're taking little ones on a wintry outing!
To help prepare for winter outdoor time, we spoke with Elizabeth Meade, M.D., medical director of pediatric quality and safety at Swedish Medical Group, about few things to keep in mind so the whole family can enjoy being outside safely during cold weather months.
Frostbite occurs when skin or the tissue below it freezes. It’s more likely to affect the “things that stick out,” like fingers, toes, ears, and nose. The affected spot will often hurt and look red at first, then go numb and turn pale or white as the frostbite worsens. If you suspect frostbite, get inside immediately and soak the area in warm (not hot; just warm to touch) water for 20-30 minutes. If the area doesn’t start to feel normal within a few minutes, seek medical attention.
Hypothermia happens when the body’s core temperature drops below normal. First people may start shivering, but then they can become sluggish, clumsy, or confused. Hypothermia is a medical emergency. If you suspect it, call 911, get the person indoors right away, remove any wet clothing and wrap them in blankets or warm clothes. If they are alert, have them drink warm fluids. Someone with suspected hypothermia should always be seen right away by a doctor. It's important to remember that kids are more at risk because their bodies are smaller and lose heat more quickly, and they often don’t have as much “insulation” as adults do. They may not be able to communicate as well, and also don’t tend to recognize the earliest signs of cold injuries. Elderly people can be at risk for these same reasons.
Non-direct cold injuries
There are other wintertime risks that doctors worry about. Some of these are obvious, like broken bones from slipping on ice; older adults are particularly at risk because of decreased balance and bone density. Other things, like an increased risk of heart attack, may not be so obvious. Your heart has to work harder in the cold weather, and people may also be doing more physically taxing things like walking through heavy, wet snow or shoveling it. Move slowly, take breaks, and pay close attention to your body. Those with cardiovascular disease should be especially careful in cold weather.
Prevention is the best medicine
As with most things medical, the best way to deal with a cold-related injury is to prevent it from happening in the first place.
- Avoid being outside in areas with a temperature or wind chill below -15° because skin can freeze in minutes in temperatures that cold.
- Wear lots of thin layers, and choose insulated boots, gloves, and hats. Kids need extra coverage; we usually recommend one more layer than an adult would need to stay warm. If clothing gets wet, change into dry items right away.
- Go inside regularly to warm up and assess younger children frequently for signs of cold.
- When preparing your littles for winter travel, remember not to put babies or kids in a car seat with thick, bulky gear on because the safety straps may not fit them properly. Although it's a small hassle, it's much safer to put them in the car wearing regular clothes and then tuck a blanket or warm coat over their body until you get to your destination.
Find a doctor
Whether it’s time to schedule your child’s recommended and required vaccines or a routine checkup, Swedish pediatrics can help. Call 800-793-3474 for an appointment. You can also use Swedish Express Care Virtual, which connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow-up as needed. To find a pediatrician, caregiver or advanced care practitioner, you can also use our provider directory.
Find out the latest updates on how we’re handling COVID-19.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
About the AuthorMore Content by Swedish Pediatrics Team