Take it from someone who lived in Alaska for a year: Proper clothing and the good sense to come inside before the cold becomes painful are the best ways to avoid frostbite.
Robert Kennedy, M.D., of St. Louis Children's Hospital emergency medicine, took up residence in Alaska long enough to see his share of cold-exposed cheeks, ears and fingers.
"The recovery from frostbite is extremely painful," Dr. Kennedy says. "It is best to be avoided at all costs. Luckily, it can be -- as long as a few simple precautions are taken."
Starting with clothing, Dr. Kennedy reminds parents to protect their children's skin from exposure by supplying them with hats, gloves and scarves. He also recommends that families who want to stay active outdoors in the winter months invest in the latest synthetic fabrics. Unlike cotton, which absorbs moisture and can actually make you colder, many synthetic materials, such as Gore-Tex, are waterproof. And as Dr. Kennedy learned from bicycling to Alaska from Montana, staying dry is essential to staying warm.
Temperature, Dr. Kennedy warns, is not always the determining factor in creating conditions for frostbite. In fact, children and adults can suffer the initial stages of frostbite in above-freezing temperatures, depending on how hard the wind is blowing and how wet they are.
"An important sign to look for," Dr. Kennedy says, "is skin that is cold, white, painful, tingly or numb." If this is the case, bring your child inside immediately.
Knowing when to come in out of the cold is an important way to prevent frostbite. But that is not as easy as it sounds, because frostbite is followed by numbness of the affected area. Before that numbness sets in, however, there will be a period of pain. "If your child comes to you complaining that his fingers, ears, nose or cheeks hurt, it is time to get inside," Dr. Kennedy says.