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Tips on how to keep children healthy and happy during winter months

January 04, 2013|By MARIE GILBERT | marieg@herald-mail.com
  • Jayvontay Nazelrod was bundled in his stroller by his mother, Kimbra, while in downtown Hagerstown in January 2012. One way to keep children healthy during the winter is make sure they are dressed properly for the cold because infants and toddlers cannot control their body temperature as well as adults.
Herald-Mail file photo

From sledding and skiing to building a snowman in the backyard, winter offers a wonderland of fun activities for children.

But the cold-weather months can also pose safety concerns, such as frostbite and hypothermia, recreational mishaps and the spread of colds and flu.

Still, there's no need to hibernate, says Gordon Braun, physician assistant with Antrim Family & Walk-In Care in Greencastle, Pa., an affiliate of Summit Health.

Instead, a few precautions can go a long way in keeping children warm, safe and healthy.



Bundle up

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a number of problems can arise when infants and children are not properly dressed for cold weather.

Braun agrees.

"Infants lose their body heat more easily than adults," he said. "They can't control their body temperature as well as adults. So it's important to make sure they are dressed appropriately when going outdoors in the winter months."

Braun recommends dressing infants and children in one more layer of clothing than an adult would wear in the same conditions.

They should always have warm hats to cover their heads, insulated weather-resistant coats or snowsuits, mittens and proper weather-resistant footwear, he noted.

Improper clothing and exposure to the elements can lead to several health concerns, including hypothermia, a condition, Braun said, which occurs when an individual has an abnormally low body temperature.

"This is caused by your body losing heat faster than it can produce heat," he explained.

Symptoms in both children and adults include shivering, exhaustion, drowsiness, confusion, memory loss and slurred speech, Braun said. Symptoms in infants include bright red, cold skin and sluggish or very low energy levels.

"If you are with someone who has these symptoms, take their temperature," Braun said. "If their temperature is below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, or the individual becomes unresponsive or unconscious seek emergency care immediately."

Another condition parents can help prevent is frostbite, Braun said, which occurs when a part of the body has been injured due to freezing.

"Normally, a body part that has a frostbite injury will lose feeling and color," he said. "Signs that frostbite have occurred include a white or grayish-yellow skin area or skin that feels unusually firm or waxy. Numbness can also occur in the affected area. Once you or someone you are with notices a case of frostbite, seek emergency care immediately."

The AAP warns not to rub the frozen areas. Dry and cover the child with warm clothing or blankets and give him something warm to drink.

To prevent frostbite, Braun suggested wearing several layers of loose clothing, a hat and scarf or knit mask to cover the face and mouth, sleeves that are tight around the wrist, which aids in keeping the cold air from entering the coat;  mittens or gloves, a water and wind-resistant coat and water-resistant footwear.

Braun recommended not going outside in very cold weather after a recent bath or shower.

"Also, bring children inside at regular intervals and inspect fingers and noses for signs of frost nip and frostbite," he said. "If you are away from home, take extra clothing along. And keep dry. Wet clothes will increase the chance of heat loss."

Braun said nosebleeds are common among both children and adults during the winter months.

"Cold, dry air outside and warm, dry air inside are a perfect recipe for a nosebleed," he shared.

To help prevent this condition, Braun suggested using a saline-based nasal spray or petroleum jelly-based lubricant to help moisten the nasal membranes.

"If possible," he added, "a humidifier in your home can help put moisture back into the air and possibly decrease your risk for nosebleeds."



Protection from the sun

Braun said parents should also make sure their children have proper sun protection.

"During the winter months, protection from the sun's rays is just as important as during the summer months," he said. "You may have more of your skin covered with clothing due to the cold temperatures, but there are exposed parts that are still at risk for sun damage."

"Actually," he said, "the snow in the winter will reflect some of the UV light coming from the sun, meaning that the risk for sun damage is even higher. And, as in the summer, the sun's rays are still damaging, even on cloudy, snowy days."

Braun offered the following tips to prevent sun damage in the winter:

  •  Use sunscreen with sun protective factor (SPF) 30 or higher and both UVA and UVB protection. Remember when you use a sunscreen, if you put on a thin layer you will not get the protection noted on the label. Put on an adequate thickness.
  •  Seek shade, especially during midday hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.).
  •  Cover up with clothing to protect exposed skin. Cover your head and wear items like ski masks to cover even more exposed skin.
  •  Wear sunglasses or goggles that wrap around and block as close to 100 percent of both UVA and UVB rays as possible.
  •  Wear a protective lip balm of SPF 30 or higher.



Pass the tissue

Cold weather does not cause colds or flu. But the viruses that cause these health issues tend to be more common during the winter when children are in school and in closer contact with each other, according to the AAP.

"Hand washing is very important in the prevention of spreading illness," Braun said. "In fact, it's one of the actions that you can take every day to help prevent the spread of germs that cause illnesses like influenza."

Braun suggested washing hands often with soap and warm water, "especially after you cough or sneeze.  You can also use alcohol-based hand cleaners."

Children should be taught to always cover their nose and mouth with a tissue when they cough or sneeze, he added. Also, children should avoid touching their eyes, nose or mouth "because germs can spread that way."

Braun said it's important to avoid close contact with sick people. This means children should stay home from school to avoid infecting others.

"Everyone 6 months or older should get a flu vaccine each year," Braun said, "but it's especially important that certain people get the vaccine because they are at high risk of having serious flu-related complications or because they live with or care for people at high risk for developing flu-related complications."

The flu vaccine is highly recommended for those ages 6 months to 5 years of age, pregnant women, adults age 65 or older, people who have chronic health problems or compromised immune systems, health care workers and people who care for children less than five years old or adults age 65 or older, he said.



Children at play

When it comes to winter activities, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests setting reasonable time limits on outdoor play to prevent conditions such as frostbite. And with any recreational activity involving children, there should always be adult supervision.

Ice skaters should skate only on approved surfaces and always make sure your child wears a helmet. Skate in the same direction as the crowd and never skate alone.

Young children should be separated from older children when sledding and all age groups should consider wearing a helmet.

Sleds should be structurally sound and free of sharp edges and splinters and the steering mechanism should be well lubricated. Sled slopes should be free of obstructions, such as trees or fences, should be covered in snow, not ice, should not be too steep and end with a flat runoff.

Never sled near motor vehicles.

According to the AAP, children should be taught to ski or snowboard by a qualified instructor in a program designed for children. Never allow your children to ski or snowboard alone.

Equipment should fit the child and they should always wear a helmet.

Slopes should match the ability and experience of the child and there should be no trees or other obstacles on the course.

The AAP recommends that children under the age of 16 not operate snowmobiles and that children younger than the age of 6 never ride on a snowmobile.

In addition to outdoor concerns, the AAP reports that winter is a time when household fires can easily occur.  Buy and install smoke alarms on every floor of your home and test them regularly.  Also, practice fire drills with your children and install a carbon monoxide detector outside each bedroom.

Always use caution with supplemental heaters, ovens, space heaters or fireplaces in the house.  And make sure children keep a safe distance from any heating source.



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