How to Recognize Signs of Frostbite (& Tips to Protect Kids)

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Extreme cold weather is nothing to mess with! This Southern girl got quite the education in winter weather safety while touring Tero Isokauppila’s beautiful (+ extremely snowy and cold) homeland in Finland. As you can imagine, knowing the signs of frostbite and how to stay warm in the snow is extremely serious business there.

With the record-breaking cold sweeping the U.S. right now, I thought it might help to share some of the cold weather tips I learned. While many of you from cold climates will already know a lot of this, with shifting weather patterns and extreme cold in unusual places it’s good to have a refresher.

I also consulted with mom friends who do a lot of winter sports or live in very cold climates to compile these tips.

Here’s what the experts (moms included!) have to say about enjoying the great outdoors in the winter, and how to judge if it’s safe for kids to be outside.

Kids & Cold Weather: The Risks (& Benefits)

We all know kids are naturally drawn to snow and will play in it for hours on end! From sledding to ice skating to just building a snowman, there are plenty of fun winter activities to keep kids busy and active all winter.

Many also seem to have their own internal heaters (probably something to do with all that extra energy) and view zipped coats and hats and gloves as a huge nuisance that get in the way of play. As any recess monitor at school will tell you, kids need some extra nagging training when it comes to staying safe in the snow.

There are health benefits to being cold, but overexposure is no joke. In certain conditions, only a short time of exposure can result in:

  • frostnip
  • frostbite
  • mild to severe hypothermia

Because kids are smaller, there’s a higher risk of frostbite or overexposure to the cold. Those little fingers/hands/noses are especially vulnerable to frostbite, which can occur in only minutes in colder temperatures and high wind.

In this post, we’ll focus on the signs and symptoms of frostbite, and how to avoid it.

What Is Frostbite?

According to the Mayo Clinic, frostbite is when skin freezes, causing sometime permanent damage to skin tissues. The risk of frostbite greatly increases when skin is exposed to combination of wind and/or water in cold temperatures.

Why does this happen?

When your body gets cold it responds by tightening blood vessels in the hands, arms, legs, feet, and other extremities to direct blood flow into essential organs and keep up your core temperature. This is one reasons the nose, ears, cheeks, fingers, and toes are usually the first areas to suffer frostbite.

Due to their smaller size, children are even more vulnerable than adults. They’re also more likely to be too young (or too caught up in the fun of being outdoors) to verbalize or notice the warning signs.

Signs and Symptoms of Frostbite (& What to Do)

So what to do… stay indoors all winter? Far from it. Kids can still enjoy snow sports and time outside even in very cold weather, but they need the right gear and a watchful eye.

Here’s an overview of the three stages of frostbite:

First-Degree Frostbite (Frostnip)

Often called “frostnip,” this beginning stage of frostbite doesn’t permanently damage tissue, which can usually return to normal with some basic first-aid measures.

What to look for: 

  • exposed skin turning red
  • complaining of being cold

Ask kids if they’re feeling:

  • a pins-and-needles (“prickly”) feeling
  • cold or painful skin

What to do:

  1. Cover all exposed skin.
  2. Get them someplace warm and dry immediately.
  3. Soak the area in warm (104-108°) water for 15-30 minutes. Do NOT use hot water!
  4. If water not available, cover affected skin with warm hands and hold on skin to warm up.
  5. Skin should return to normal, but child may feel some tingling, pain, or burning as it warms up.

Second-Degree Frostbite (Superficial)

At this stage, frostbite starts to affect more layers of the skin.

What to look for:

  • skin tissue turns from red to a paler color
  • skin begins to feel warm to the person but cold to the touch (a sign of damage)
  • clumsiness in walking or loss of dexterity

Ask kids if they’re feeling:

  • a warm feeling in face, fingers, toes, etc. (although skin feels cold to touch)
  • any numbness or trouble walking or moving hands

What to do:

  1. Repeats steps 1 & 2 above.
  2. Check for signs of hypothermia or low core temperature (intense shivering, slowed speech, drowsiness).
  3. See medical attention – most sources don’t recommend self-treatment at this stage.
  4. Blisters (chillblains) may form as the skin tries to heal.

Third-Degree Frostbite (Deep)

The most severe stage and one hopefully none of us ever experience. Severe frostbite penetrates all layers of the skin. The skin at this stage is literally frozen and later turns black. It requires immediate emergency medical treatment.

What to look for:

  • skin turning yellow-gray or blueish-yellow
  • skin feels cold and hard or waxy to the touch

Ask kids if they’re feeling:

  • numbness or loss of feeling
  • difficulty moving or bending joints

What to do:

  1. Repeats steps 1 & 2.
  2. Splint or wrap the affected area as moving may cause further damage to tissue.
  3. Seek emergency medical attention immediately.

This is a very helpful visual of the frostbite stages from the Mayo Clinic for a quick illustration. (Don’t worry, it’s not too graphic.)

When Is It Too Cold for Kids to Play Outside?

The answer to this question is a bit relative depending on where you live. My kids think a “snow day” equals temps under 35°F and a few flurries hitting the ground (if we’re lucky)! In other, colder climates, people go about their lives in daily average temperatures in the single digits!

The key is how knowledgeable and prepared you are for the weather.

So when is cold weather classified as “dangerous”? School policies vary widely (often because children come without the right gear).

Important note: Cold weather endurance varies greatly depending on climate, age, health conditions, how you’re dressed, etc., so you will need to make the best judgment for your family.

Safe Winter Play Guidelines

All of the sources I consulted agreed on three cardinal rules of safe winter play for children:

  1. Make sure kids bundle up and come in often to warm up in temperatures lower than 32 degrees.
  2. Always base judgments on the windchill, not just the air temperature.
  3. Even when cold is not extreme, winter gear must be water resistant or water proof and very dry to keep kids safe.

Best Cold Weather Gear + Tips

As I said, Finland was a real crash course in how to bundle up for the cold! Here’s what I learned along with a few suggestions for quality cold weather gear. Adjust the following suggestions based on your climate… overdressing kids is a problem too since it causes sweat (moisture).

1. Always wear a base layer.

This layer wicks away sweat and is a key part of staying dry! This is one of the few times synthetic fabric may be a better choice than natural as it will dry faster. If you plan to spend a significant amount of time in the cold, many moms I asked said UnderArmor’s ColdGear is the ultimate in insulating technology. (There are also cheaper options.)

2. Add wool or fleece layer over the base layer.

For the next layer, choose something insulating and quick-drying like wool or fleece. This layer shouldn’t be too tight, as looser clothing will trap insulated air and keep you warmer. Our site editor from the Midwest buys this brand of wool leggings for kids in a larger size so they last for two seasons.

3. Top with a wind and water-resistant coat with vents.

Moisture + cold = a recipe for frostbite or hypothermia (or just being too cold to have fun!). Choose an outer shell with wind and water resistant seams and vents to release perspiration. (January is a great time to shop for discounted outdoor gear for next year at a quality ski or outdoor gear shop.) My friend in Michigan loves these Roxy coats for a good blend of style and function.

4. Use warm, insulating wool or synthetic socks.

I never knew this until my trip to Finland, but it’s actually very important to leave some room in boots (think warm, insulated air). Instead of doubling or wearing very thick socks, try a high quality pair of thermal socks instead. Bonus: they also last forever and work great for preventing blisters during summer hiking!

5. Protect face, ears, fingers, and toes.

  • Moms rave about these Head gloves (I’ve seen them at a great price at Costco) or these mittens with side zipper to make them easier to get on toddlers.
  • Kids’ fingers are especially vulnerable. One mom whose kids ski competitively loves this glove dryer as a quick way to dry out kids’ gloves and get them back out in the snow.
  • Well-insulated and waterproof boots (with enough room for toes to wiggle even with socks!). These Khombu boots are well-loved by moms in cold places.
  • I had never heard of these before, but if temps are cold enough that noses and cheeks need to be covered, try a balaclava. (Hopefully kids will think it looks like a ninja and want to wear it!)
  • Take it from me after a week in Finland… foot and hand warmers making being out in the snow a lot more comfortable! These heat up instantly and are reusable (to reduce waste).

Bottom Line: Keep Frostbite Away While Kids Play

I’m glad it’s not my everyday life, but I am loving my time in Finland and learning how have fun in the snow (while keeping all my fingers and toes!). Hopefully some of these tips help, and wherever you are I hope you’re safe and warm!

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.

Does your family like cold weather, or do you prefer to stay indoors? Have any tips to add? I’d love to hear!

  3. Flatt AE. Frostbite. Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent). 2010;23(3):261-2.
Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


One response to “How to Recognize Signs of Frostbite (& Tips to Protect Kids)”

  1. Kennedy Avatar

    This is helpful, but what about babies? My little one is about 6 mo and I’ve been taking her out (while bundled warm) but I’m not sure how to tell if she’s too cold. How do I cover exposed skin on her face? How much bundling is necessary when I’m wearing her in a carrier versus in a stroller? Thanks!

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