Must-Know Winter Health & Safety Tips

by Deborah Skolnik

Must-Know Winter Health & Safety Tips

Your biggest cold-weather questions answered, with advice on winter sports, skin care, the best cold-weather wardrobe, and more.

Winter fun is beckoning, but keeping kids healthy, warm, and entertained can be trickier than putting snow boots on a squirrel. Little guys will head straight into a blizzard in their underwear if they can; big ones may need the Wiimote pried away. Here’s how to make sure everyone gets out there and has a great time, safely.

Can They… Go Outside?

Windy days can feel much colder than the actual temperature. When deciding how long kids (and adults!) can play outdoors safely, the windchill factor is most important. Keep this chart handy:

Green Zone: 30°F and higher

Kids can usually play outside comfortably when it’s 30°F and higher — just layer their clothing and make sure they wear hats and mittens. Offer water often (it helps regulate body temperature), and watch for signs that they’re getting chilled. If they’re shivering, bring them inside even if they insist they’re fine. Feel babies’ hands and (if possible) feet regularly to see if they’re turning icy; also watch for unexplained fussiness. It’s a good idea to come inside for a quick break every 40 minutes or so, just to warm up a bit.

Yellow Zone: About 20°F – 30°F

Be cautious. It’s okay for your kids to go out, but follow the guidelines above, and expect to see signs of chill sooner — take short indoor breaks every 20 to 30 minutes. It’s especially crucial to layer older kids’ clothes, since they may ditch their coats if they get sweaty and so need to be wearing more than a thin shirt underneath.

Red Zone: Below 20°F

Stay indoors.

Windchill Decoder

30° = chilly and generally uncomfortable
15° to 30° = cold
0° to 15° = very cold
-20° to 0° = bitter cold, with a significant risk of frostbite
-60° to -20° = extreme cold; frostbite is likely to occur
-60° = frigid; exposed skin will freeze in one minute

Good Sports!

There’s no cuter sight than a kid zipping down a ski slope or gliding across the ice. But when are they ready to try these slippery activities? Check out these rules for a smart start.

2-year-olds are ready for…

Skiing between your legs down a gentle slope. Spread your skis apart so your child fits between them, and crouch down slightly, putting your hands under his armpits for support.

3-year-olds are ready for…

Sledding with you. “Make sure she’s sitting facing forward and not lying on her stomach — smaller kids have larger heads, which makes them more prone to neck injuries,” says Terry Philbin, M.D., an orthopedist in Westerville, OH. Choose a slope with a gradual incline, and troubleshoot the path thoroughly before pushing off to avoid collisions with a fellow sledder, tree, or vehicle.

4- to 6-year-olds are ready for…

Skiing solo. “They’re getting more balanced and coordinated, and they’re more capable of really learning basic technique,” explains Steve Kopitz, an expert skier and owner of the online store A lesson on the bunny slope at a ski center is a good idea. If you’re going it alone,Kopitz recommends the “hula-hoop technique”: Put a hula hoop around your child’s waist, hold onto it from the back, and ski slightly behind him as he goes (spread your skis to either side and leave him room between them). Once he’s a bit more confident, try using a ski harness — they come equipped with ropes on each side so that the child can be turned slightly and can’t get more than 15 feet in front of you. (Note: Most experts recommend that children not use ski poles while learning. Instead, tell your child to keep his hands on his knees; it’ll help him learn to distribute his weight the right way.)

Ice-skating. For your first outing, choose a public skating session at a local rink — ideally at an off-peak hour — and rent a pair of skates for your child, advises two-time Olympic champion and skating instructor Randy Gardner. (Ice skates should be a half-size smaller than her shoe size, since you need a snug, supportive fit.) Begin by simply walking around on the floor in the skates, then walk on the ice holding on to the rail, to get a feel for how to balance. As your child gets more confident, take her hand and help her glide until she’s ready to try it on her own. If she really enjoys ice-skating, group lessons will help her increase her ability.

5- to 8-year-olds are ready for…

Ice hockey. That is, if your child has already nailed the basics of ice-skating — how to glide, stop, and go backward. Look for a hockey stick that comes up no higher than your kid’s chin when he’s standing on skates. You can just play pick-up games on a frozen lake or pond that your town deems safe for skating, but if your child is interested in joining a team, signing up for a beginner clinic to learn the basics of the sport is best.


9-year-olds and up are ready for…

Snowboarding. A properly sized snowboard is essential, says Pat Milbery, a pro boarder in Denver. You can buy one at a sporting-goods shop or rent one at a local ski slope. A ski center can offer both a kid-friendly setting and lessons. Your backyard, if it’s sloped, or any sledding site is okay, too. As your child gets better, break out your shovel to create mini-bumps for him, Milbery suggests.

At some point this season, you’re going to be faced with a tough call — your crusty-nosed kid is begging to be allowed outside for a snow-fort fight. Should you stick a hat on him and hope for the best, or send him back to bed? Atlanta pediatrician Vivian Lennon, M.D., sorts through the symptoms:

Fever: If your child is running a fever and feels bad, he belongs in bed, no arguments. (Okay, arguments, because what kid doesn’t argue? But you have to win.) Still, “I tell parents not to get freaked out by fever itself,” Dr. Lennon notes. “If your child is energetic, he doesn’t have to stay in bed. And if you give him some fever reducer and his temperature drops, he can even go outside to play for a little while.” What’s important is that he not mix with other kids while he’s feverish, since he’s contagious.

Sore throat: If it’s mild and your child has no fever, let her go do her thing. If it’s more severe, and your child has trouble swallowing, a strep test is in order.

Cough: If you keep your kid indoors just because he’s hacking, he’ll see the light of day less often than most vampires. As long as your child looks good, is drinking fluids well, and is breathing normally, it’s okay to let him go outside. (If he’s short of breath or has chest pain, however, call your doctor.) Just be aware that a cough can get worse outdoors — he may have to come in at intervals to rest up. And have your child stop playing altogether if he gets so winded that he’s having difficulty completing sentences.

Runny nose: Like coughs, runny noses can last for days after the initial illness has passed. If your kid’s drippy sniffer is accompanied by a fever, follow the fever guidelines at left. Otherwise, “if she’s letting you know she’s ready to play, it’s fine to let her out,” Dr. Lennon says. Worth noting: Yellow snot isn’t as ominous as it looks. Generally, mucus darkens after it’s been in the nose all night long, or several days into a cold. “It’s a natural progression of the virus,” explains Dr. Lennon. If there’s thick green or yellow mucus for a week, however, see your M.D. Your kid may have developed a sinus infection.

Skintensive Care

Winter can be hard on your child’s delicate little hide, so take extra precautions like applying sunscreen (yep, sunburn can still happen in the cold) and dressing properly to keep exposed skin to a minimum. Below, Ira Skolnik, M.D., a pediatric dermatologist in Concord, MA, reveals how to handle the rough spots.

Dry skin: Bathe with gentle, scent-free soaps and avoid scrubbing. If skin is itchy, a colloidal-oatmeal bath such as Aveeno is a great soother. After baths, pat your child’s skin dry instead of wiping it, which can be irritating (tell older kids to follow this rule, too). Moisturize often with whatever cream, jelly, or lotion your pediatrician recommends.

Chapping: Prevent it by applying a barrier of petroleum jelly (after sunscreen) on any exposed areas of the face before your child goes outside. Apply moisturizer often when indoors and consider getting your child a face mask for outdoor play if it’s a frequent problem.

Fingertip and toe splits: Little digits can crack when the air turns cold and dry, especially the fingers of your child’s dominant hand (if she has one yet), since they experience the most friction. Most pediatricians recommend applying an emollient cream or petroleum jelly frequently, especially after hand washing. If you think your child is old enough to tolerate it, moisturize her hands just before bed and then slip on a pair of white cotton gloves (available in a variety of sizes at so the cream really sinks in. Once the skin has healed, your doctor may recommend that you apply a liquid bandage every few days as a preventative, or when new fissures start to appear.

Frostnip: Caused by prolonged exposure to cold, this early precursor to frostbite usually first appears on exposed extremities, like the nose, fingertips, and toes. Watch for redness and feel for extreme coldness; your child may also complain that the area is numb or tingling. Head inside at once, and have him change out of any wet clothing, including socks. Take the chill off the problem spots by submerging them in water that’s warm (but not scalding) to the touch.


Dress for Cold-Weather Success

For playing in the snow:

Water-repellent pants and jacket, or a snowsuit, with layers underneath (such as a turtleneck or thermal shirt covered by a sweater)
Water-repellent gloves or mittens
Cotton socks
Water-repellent boots

For sledding, add:
Bike or ski helmet

For skiing, add:
Ski helmet (instead of a hat)
Long underwear
Goggles/sunglasses with UV protection, depending on the weather

For ice-skating, add:
Knee pads, elbow pads, and wrist guards, especially for beginners

For snowboarding, add:
Knee pads
Wrist guards
Padded shorts (“butt pads”)
Snowboard helmet (instead of a hat)

For ice hockey, add:
Elbow pads
Shin and knee guards
Shoulder and chest pads
Padded hockey shorts
Hockey helmet with face mask
Hockey gloves

Fancy Footwork

We’ve all been there: One minute, you’re walking on a slippery sidewalk; the next, you’re on your butt, seeing stars. For little kids, unaccustomed to a snow-dusted driveway or a slushy set of stairs, it can be even tougher to maintain a firm footing. These tips from Ronald Grelsamer, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City, can cut down on the ice packs and boo-boo kisses:

Make sure your kids have the right footwear — shoes or boots with rubber soles that have a raised pattern for a better grip.

Warn them not to go streaking across a fresh patch of snow — there could be ice underneath.

Teach your children to walk sideways down slippery slopes, bending their knees a little. They should avoid crossing one foot in front of the other, though; that’ll compromise their balance.

Kids 10 and up are big enough to remember to keep their feet slightly wider apart than usual and, if the street is really slippery, to bend their knees a bit. “You might feel you look funny, but it’s worth it!” says Dr. Grelsamer.

It’s also a good idea for kids to learn to protect their dominant arm. If your child is a righty, for instance, tell her to put that hand in her pocket, or, if she’s carrying something, to put it in that hand. That way, if she starts to stumble, she’ll instinctively use her less-crucial hand to break the fall.