Frostbite is a common injury resulting from exposure to cold. Simply defined, it’s the freezing of the skin and/or the bodily tissues under the skin. The fluids in the body tissues and cellular spaces freeze and crystallize. This can cause damage to the blood vessels and result in blood clotting and lack of oxygen to the affected area. Serious cases of frostbite have been known to kill and damage tissue to the extent that amputation is required. Most often the hands, feet, ears, nose and face suffer frostbite.

What causes frostbite to occur?

Length of time a person is exposed to the cold

Temperature outside

Force of the wind (wind chill factor)

Humidity in the air

Wetness of clothing, shoes and body coverings

Ingestion of alcohol and other drugs

High altitudes

If the conditions are cold with a high wind chill factor or if the temperature is bitterly cold, the exposure of uncovered body parts may result in frostbite in just minutes! Elderly and young people are particularly susceptible. Also, people with circulation problems; a history of previous cold injuries; who ingest certain drugs (such as alcohol, nicotine and beta-blockers); or with recent injury or blood loss, are at increased risk for developing frostbite. It also seems that people from southern or tropical climates may be more at risk.

Can I prevent frostbite?

You can try! It’s a lot easier to prevent frostbite than to treat it. Protective clothing includes:

Head and ear coverings (half of the body’s heat can be lost from the head area)

Insulated outer garments that are tightly woven, wind and water repellent material

Warm, loose-fitted clothing in layers to trap warm air for insulation between layers

Insulated hand protection (mittens offer a better protection than gloves due to keeping fingers together for warmth)

Insulated winter boots and socks to keep feet warm and dry

Scarf, face mask, or neck protector that covers mouth area to help protect lungs from cold air

What are the signs and symptoms of frostbite?

Mild frostbite (called frostnip) affects the outer skin layers and appears as a blanching or whitening of the skin. Usually these symptoms disappear as warming occurs, but the skin may appear red for several hours after.

In severe cases, the frostbitten skin will appear waxy-looking with a white, grayish-yellow or grayish-blue color. The affected parts will be numb and blisters may be present. The tissue will feel frozen or “wooden.” This indicates a serious condition.

Other symptoms of frostbite are swelling, itching, burning, and deep pain as the area is warmed.

If you think you may have frostbite, even if it’s a mild case, it’s highly recommended that a medical professional be consulted. Here are guidelines to decrease the chance that you suffer further injury:

DO …

Do have your injury re-warmed under medical supervision, if possible.

Do get to a warm place where you can stay warm after thawing.

Do rest the injured area (avoid walking on frostbitten feet, etc.).

Do use water 104 to107 degrees Fahrenheit (should be warm to touch-not hot) for 30 to 45 minutes until a good flush color has returned to the entire area. This process may be painful, especially the final 10 minutes. If warm water is not available, wrap the affected part gently in a sheet or warm blankets. Or, cold hands, for example, can be placed under dry clothing against the body, such as in the armpits.

Do leave any blisters intact. Cover with a sterile or clean covering for protection.

Do keep affected part as clean as possible to reduce the risk of infection.

Do elevate the area above the level of the heart.

Do make sure your tetanus/diphtheria booster is within 10 years.

DO NOT …

Don’t allow your injury to thaw then re-freeze. For instance, keep walking to a permanent shelter rather than warming frozen toes at a temporary shelter. It is better to delay warming than expose affected parts to more cold on the rest of the trip.

Don’t use dry heat to thaw (sunlamp, radiator, heating pad, etc).

Don’t thaw the injury in melted snow.

Don’t rub the area.

Don’t use alcohol, nicotine or other drugs that affect blood flow.

Frostbite can be a serious, disabling condition. Use your head! Keep safety in mind when traveling in cold weather, during winter sports participation, and when out and about in the frigid winter months.

Sources: http://www.nuhs.northwestern.edu & http://www.mckinley.uiuc.edu

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