Why Do Children Need Hats and Scarves in Cold Weather?

Our mothers and grandmothers always warned us to wear hats and scarves before going out in the cold, for good reason. Children love to play outside, and outdoor play in cold weather can be very beneficial, but children are often oblivious to the effects of cold temperatures.

Exposure to cold can produce a range of injuries due to the body's inability to adapt to low temperatures. The cold can cause localized injury to a body part or parts (peripheral cold injuries), systemic injury due to generalized cooling of the entire body (systemic hypothermia), or a combination of both. Geographic regions can impact the type of cold injuries, but the risks can exist anywhere.

Poor planning can lead to higher risk of frostbite and hypothermia. While there is some truth to dressing warmly, particularly in keeping our heads warm, there are some myths and tips, particularly for children.

The importance of hats and scarves

Children do lose more heat proportionally through their head and face when exposed to colder temperatures. Some people call this the “chimney effect” - dense, chilly air pushing warmer, lighter air off of our bodies. Wind can make matters worse and dissipate heat more quickly.

Children should wear scarves made of materials that wick away sweat such as merino wool, fleece, or polyester. Natural fibers such as wool, cotton, or bamboo are the best. for hats, since hats in particular accumulate dead skin cells and oils. These natural materials wash better than synthetics.

It is important to ensure the hat or scarf fits so air and heat are not lost. Mittens are also recommended.

There are some common perceptions regarding winter gear.

  • You lose more body heat through your head. The reality is that there is nothing special about the head. The head just tends to be more exposed because of clothing covering the rest of our body. The amount of heat that dissipates from the head depends on the amount or thickness of hair and how much energy is being used in the cold.
  • Dress in layers to stay warm. It is true that dressing children in layers allows for adjustments to various levels of activity, but often one warm garment works just as well as several. It makes the most sense to dress in layers if the child is continually active, such as using a sled or skiing. The best fabrics include polypropylene or other synthetic fabrics next to skin. The key is that some layers can be shed depending on the child’s activity level. Overheating can be detrimental to children. Their immune systems are already in high gear when out fighting the cold and building snowmen.
  • Cover the child’s ears. There is some truth to covering up sensitive parts of the body, particularly in children. Their outer ears, tips of their noses, lips, and small fingers can be very susceptible to the cold.
  • Winter gear can make you sick. Yes, having children wear the same hats, scarves, and mittens or gloves can actually make them sick. Not washing the gear can cause potential problems. Children touch various surfaces and then rub their noses, eyes, and faces. This activity is fraught with potential spread of infection. Most recommendations call for washing winter gear every week or two, if possible. Children, and many adults, tend to open their mouths and use their teeth, take off gloves and then touch their hats and scarves – they might as well be licking doorknobs. Remember scarves tend to end up in children’s mouths as well. Make sure when the winter gear is washed, it is fully dried. Wet hats, scarves, and gloves are a breeding ground for mold.

Benefits to being outside in the cold

Fresh air is a benefit in the colder months because of the decrease in exposure to the viruses that cause colds and flu. Bacteria, dust, and dander tend to recirculate indoors, and getting the child to play outside has some benefits.

Some believe that the child’s immune system will improve along with better responses to allergies if the child is allowed to venture outdoors in the wintry weather.

Children who go outside tend to get more physical exercise. Physical activities strengthen the immune system and provide a better response to potential pathogens. Children often find they sleep better after being active.

Children benefit from being outside in the cold because of the uniqueness of the environment, particularly if there is snow. There are many activities that can stimulate the imagination.

Take-home points on cold injuries

  • Parents and children need to be properly educated as to what is reasonable when heading out into cold weather. Prevention of cold injuries is best done with the proper use of appropriate clothing, which includes hats and scarves.
  • The most imminent threat to life in cold injuries is the potential for systemic hypothermia. Children have less reserves in dealing with the cold and can get into trouble more quickly.
  • When hypothermia is suspected, treatment should be instituted immediately: prevent further heat loss, rewarm the body core temperature, avoid wet clothing and rubbing affected body parts, as this can worsen tissue injury.
  • Peripheral cold injury occurs on a spectrum from frostnip to varying depths of frostbite. Once cold injury is identified and the affected parts rewarmed, it is vital to avoid refreezing; if refreezing occurs, the subsequent tissue damage will be catastrophic.
  • Simple management measures include rewarming, analgesia, blister debridement, the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and aloe vera application.
  • It is difficult to predict the depth and severity of frostbite injury in the acute setting; it is best to allow the tissue to slowly demarcate over time (often 60–90 days) prior to the patient undergoing any form of surgical debridement.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked