Keeping Athletes Safe From the Cold

In cold weather, bodies lose heat faster than they can produce it, which can lead to serious health problems like hypothermia or frostbite. Young athletes who participate in cold-weather sports and sporting events during winter months may be at risk for these and other cold-related illnesses or injuries—but there are steps they can take to stay healthy and injury-free when temperatures start to drop.

Be prepared
“Being properly prepared for the elements is key to preventing cold-weather illness and injury,” says Children's pediatric athletic trainer Tiffany Swales. When it comes to playing and competing in the cold, young athletes should:

  • Be aware of current and forecasted weather before going outside.
  • Wear layers to make it easy to remove or add clothing as conditions and exertion levels change. Technical fabrics that wick moisture and sweat can help them stay dry.
  • Be careful not to wear too many layers, as they might overheat and get sweaty. It can be hard to get warm again once you become wet.
  • Stay hydrated with water or a sports drink.
  • Maintain a well-balanced diet. (Check out these breakfast and lunch ideas to fuel your athlete.)
  • Bring extra shoes, socks and gloves to replace clothing that becomes wet.

When dressing in layers, keep in mind that moisture-wicking fabrics that can help keep skin dry make good base layers; middle layers made of fleece or natural fibers provide good insulation; and water- and wind-resistant outer layers will help reduce the loss of body heat.

Cold-weather conditions to look out for

Hypothermia
Hypothermia is a serious concern for athletes when they play or compete in cold temperatures. Hypothermia usually occurs when it’s very cold outside, but it can also strike when temperatures are merely cool and an athlete gets wet or sweaty and then becomes chilled. Signs of hypothermia include:

  • Shivering
  • Exhaustion
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Fumbling hands
  • Memory loss

Frostbite
Frostbite is a bodily injury caused by freezing that leads to a loss of feeling and color in affected areas—usually the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body and, in severe cases, can lead to amputation.

Redness, pain or numbness in any area are the first signs of frostbite. Other signs of frostbite are when the skin turns white or grayish-yellow, feels unusually firm or waxy, or goes numb.

When an athlete shows signs of hypothermia or frostbite, he or she should:

  • Move to a warm room or shelter.
  • Remove any wet clothing.
  • Warm up under layers of dry blankets or clothing.
  • Seek medical attention.

Chilblains
Extended exposure to cold, wet conditions can also lead to itchy and swollen red patches of skin known as chilblains. These spots or blisters usually clear up in a matter of weeks—especially if the weather is warming. To prevent and treat chilblains, dress in layers of loose-fitting clothing and limit the amount of skin that is exposed to the elements. If you notice chilblains on your body, keep in mind that they should go away on their own and heed the following don’ts:

  • Do not put your hands or feet under hot water or near a heater, causing a drastic change in temperature.
  • Do not massage or put lotions or creams on the affected area.

“While all athletes practicing or competing in cold temperatures are at risk for cold-related illness and injury, there are some groups who need to be particularly careful out in the elements,” says Tiffany. “Young athletes are at greater risk for cold-weather injuries, as are athletes who are diabetic, female or African-American, because they are genetically predisposed. Extra precautions should be taken by these athletes when playing outdoors.”

This article has been clinically reviewed by Tiffany Swales, MS, LAT, ATC.

This is general information and is not specific medical advice. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have questions or concerns about the health of a child.