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Cold Weather Travel Health Hazards
Cold Weather Travel Health Hazards

Sculpture in the snow

Photo by Alfredo De Simone

By Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, M.D., F.A.A.P

Hypothermia, frostnip and frostbite are real winter health risks. The colder the temperature, the more intense the wind chill, the higher the risk of cold weather related injuries. Infants and young children will suffer first. Pay attention to the weather forecast and pack proper clothing and supplies, including a fully charged cell phone, before heading outdoors for winter family fun. But don't stop there. Knowing what to do when your planning goes wrong is just as important. Early identification and prompt treatment of hypothermia, frostnip and frostbite are essential.

Hypothermia develops when the body's core temperature drops below 95° F (35° C). Early hypothermia signs include shivering, clumsiness and slurred speech, as well as a decreased energy level. What's more, an infant and young child's skin may actually appear red and flushed as their bodies chill. Check your child's body temperature should they exhibit any of the above-mentioned symptoms. Get your child to a warm environment, even a heated car, as soon as possible and call for help.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends the following hypothermia first aid measures whether you are en route to an urgent care facility or awaiting medical care:
  • Remove all wet clothing.
  • Warm the body core first: chest, neck, head, and groin with a blanket.
  • If blankets are not available, use skin-to-skin contact.
  • If the child is awake and able to drink, give him or her a warm beverage. Do not try and give a drink to a child who is not awake or is unconscious.
  • Continue to keep the child warm (including the head and neck) and dry as their body temperature rises.

Frostnip and Frostbite
Frostnip and frostbite, basically frozen skin, affect areas that are exposed to cold, such as fingers, toes, ears, chin and nose. Frostnip skin is white and numb. Areas affected by frostbite appear pale or gray and may even blister and burn. While frostnip can be treated at home, severe frostbite requires medical care.

The following first aid measures apply to both frostnip and frostbite:
  • Remove all wet clothing.
  • Slowly warm but don't rub frostbitten areas with warm water (roughly 100°F or 38°C). Affected skin may ache as circulation returns - this is very normal.
  • Warm the child's entire body with a blanket and warm drink.
One last rule of thumb. While the outside temperature is important it is the apparent temperature that matters. In other words, how cold your child really feels when he or she is sledding, skiing, or snowshoeing on your next winter holiday.
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