Exposure to extreme cold for a long time can damage your skin and the tissues underneath. That damage is called frostbite, and it’s the most common freezing injury. Frostbite doesn’t just hurt, it can lead to dangerous health consequences if not caught and treated in time. With the arrival of colder temperatures, it's the start of another frostbite season and it's important to take steps to avoid frostbite.
Prevention is the easiest way to avoid frostbite.
Any part of your body can suffer from frostbite, but your extremities – hands, feet, nose, and ears – are the most at risk. The most common contributors to frostbite are wet clothing, exposure to high winds, and poor blood circulation. Blood flow may be restricted due to things you can control such as:
- Tight clothing or boots.
- Sitting or crouching in a cramped position.
- Smoking or alcohol use.
Poor circulation is also an issue for people who take beta-blocker medications or who have medical conditions that affect the blood vessels, such as diabetes or Raynaud’s phenomenon.
Dress warmly and in layers when headed into the cold, covering all exposed areas including your head. Your outer layer should be water-resistant and wind-proof. Wearing a hat that covers your ears keeps you from losing valuable body heat through your scalp and protects your ears from frostbite. Wear mittens instead of gloves. And wear two pairs of socks.
If you plan to be outdoors for any length of time, don’t smoke or drink alcohol, as these can impede blood flow. Be sure you’re fully rested and have had enough to eat.
If you get caught in a snowstorm, look for shelter right away. If you can’t do that, increase your physical activity to boost circulation throughout your body.
What if frostbite occurs?
If you think you or a companion is getting frostbite, don’t wait to start first aid measures. You may not be able to avoid frostbite entirely at this point, but you can very likely keep things from getting worse. If the person’s arms or legs are very cold, they may have hypothermia (lower-than-normal body temperature). Treat hypothermia before moving on to frostbite first aid.
Inspect suspect areas for symptoms of frostbite:
- Skin that appears pale and feels cold and hard.
- A tingling or pins-and-needles sensation, or numbness.
- Throbbing, aching or lack of feeling.
- As the area thaws, skin and muscle may be red and extremely painful.
Severe frostbite can also cause:
- Nerve, bone, muscle or tendon damage.
- Gangrene, which is dead tissue that appears black. This may occur when frostbite has permanently damaged blood vessels. If so, the affected body part may have to be amputated.
When should you seek medical attention?
It is important to seek medical attention for significant frostbite as soon as possible. Frostbite can be considered comparable to a burn and the more significant the exposure, the more complicated and long-lasting the damage can be. It is critical to avoid touching, rubbing or overheating body parts that are cold, firm, blistered or have impaired sensation, as additional damage can occur. Gentle rewarming in 99-102 degree water is the most safe and effective method, but may be very painful if significant cold exposure has occurred. Dry heating or heating with friction is not recommended.
Unless frostbite damages your blood vessels, you should be able to recover entirely. That’s good news, but by taking cold winter weather seriously – and taking proper precautions– you can avoid frostbite in the first place.
Ridgeview Medical Center is an independent, nonprofit, regional health care system located just 35 minutes west of Minneapolis on Highway 5. Its network includes two hospitals—located in Waconia and Arlington—a multitude of primary and specialty care clinics, emergency services and specialty programs, and Two Twelve Medical Center in Chaska—a free-standing 24/7 emergency and urgent care facility with multi-specialty clinics and services.