Frostbite: Recognize and Protect

Especially in the Northern and Midwestern areas of the United States, frostbite is something that everyone should be aware of. It’s a serious condition that can not only cause damage to skin tissue, but can also lead to the need for amputation. It can happen to anybody, whether you’re just waiting for the bus, participating in a snow sport, or walking to work.

What is frostbite?

Frostbite can occur when the weather is below skin’s freezing point. Fluids within the skin freeze, causing ice crystals to form. This sucks water out of cells, causing their dehydration. Extremities also get colder, because blood vessels constrict in the cold to conserve warm blood for the organs. This exacerbates the possibility of getting frost bite, especially on fingers, toes and the nose/ears.

According to WebMD, there are two types of frostbite: superficial and deep. Superficial frostbite is when the frostbite has only affected the topmost layers of skin, and lasting effects shouldn’t be as severe as with deep frostbite.

Watch for Signs

If you have to be outside in extremely cold temperatures, be on the lookout for any skin that appears either very white or grayish-yellow and feels waxy or hard. In general, as frostbite progresses, skin will continue to harden until it doesn’t give at all when touched. The area may itch, tingle, or feel numb, becoming very numb as the frostbite progresses.

If you suspect that frostbite is occurring on any area of your body, get inside and out of the cold immediately. If you can’t, use other parts of your body to warm up the affected parts. For instance, if the area is on your face, gently protect it and warm it with your hands. Do not take off gloves or mittens – leave them on and use your whole hand to protect your face. Make sure it’s dry first. If your hands are the problem areas, draw them inside your coat and put them into your armpits.

The Mayo Clinic suggests that when you can get inside, warm the affected areas SLOWLY. Take off any wet clothing. If the frostbite is on your hands or feet, draw some warm water (not hot) and set them in. Otherwise, wrap the area in a blanket.

If you’re going to have to go back out into the cold, don’t thaw the area. Thawing and refreezing it will only hurt it more.

Get Treated

If you got frostbite, no matter how superficial you think it might be, see a doctor. Not only can they safely rewarm it for you, but they can also treat you for possible dehydration and hypothermia. According to WebMD, “At first, the areas may appear deceptively healthy. Only time can reveal the final amount of tissue damage. Therefore, all people should be seen by a doctor, who will supervise the rewarming process, attempt to classify the injury, and further guide the treatment process.”

Be Prepared

The easiest ways to avoid frostbite are to dress appropriately for the weather, and avoiding being outside on extremely cold days. Dress in layers, especially over extremities – extra pairs of socks and gloves, boot and hand warmers, a face mask, and long underwear. Make sure children are especially bundled while waiting for the school bus on cold mornings.