I, like many others, love spending time outdoors during the winter. However, I also understand the dangers that come with the drops in temperature.
One such danger that comes with the cold weather is the risk of frostbite. Now, while frostbite is not necessarily lethal, it can lead to the permanent loss of fingers, toes, noses, and any other extremities that are exposed to the cold for long periods of time.
Like most things, there are steps that you can take to both prevent and treat frostbite. It does not have to become a problem if you are prepared and recognize the warning signs.
What is Frostbite?
The symptoms of frostbite usually begin with the affected parts feeling cold and painful but if exposure to the cold continues, you may start to feel “pins and needles” before the area becomes numb as the tissues freeze.
When exposed to cold temperatures, our bodies respond by narrowing the blood vessels. This causes blood flow to the extremities to slow down so that flow to the vital organs can be increased.
As the blood is redirected away from the extremities, these parts of the body get colder, and fluid in the tissue can freeze into ice crystals which can cause severe cell and tissue damage in the affected area.
The low blood flow also deprives the tissues of oxygen. If blood flow can’t be restored, the tissue will eventually die.
Symptoms of Frostbite
There are 3 stages to the progression of frostbite and the longer that the body is exposed to freezing temperatures, the more advanced the frostbite can become.
The first stage is what is known as “frost nip”. During this stage you are likely to experience pins and needles, throbbing or aching in the affected area. Your skin will become cold, numb and white, and you may feel a tingling sensation.
During the second stage your body will experience more tissue damage and the affected areas will feel hard and frozen. If you can get out of the cold and into some place warm, as the tissue has thaws out, the skin will turn red and blister, which can be painful.
The third stage is very severe. The skin becomes white, blue or blotchy, and the tissue underneath feels hard and cold to the touch.
Further damage may occur beneath the skin to tendons, muscles, nerves and bones. This is known as deep frostbite and requires urgent medical attention.
As the skin thaws, blood-filled blisters form and turn into thick black scabs. At this stage, it’s likely that some tissue will die. This is known as tissue necrosis, and the affected tissue may have to be removed to prevent infection.
How to Prevent Frostbite
To stay warm and prevent frostbite, follow the tips below.
- Dress in layers – wearing loose, light layers helps trap warm air. The first layer should be made of a synthetic material, which wicks moisture away from your body. The next layer should be insulating. Wool and fleece are good insulators and hold in more body heat than cotton. The top layer should be windproof and waterproof. A down parka and ski pants can help keep you dry and warm during outdoor activities.
- Feet and toe protection – wear two pairs of socks. The first pair, next to your skin, should be made of moisture-wicking fabric. Place a pair of wool or wool-blend socks on top of those. Your boots should be waterproof and cover your ankles. Make sure that nothing feels tight, as tight clothing increases the risk of frostbite.
- Head protection – wear a heavy wool or fleece hat and if bitterly cold, cover your face with a scarf or face mask.
- Hand protection – wear insulated mittens or gloves.
- Oxygen – using oxygen at altitudes of around 10,000 feet or above, to increase perfusion, or blood flow
- Sweating – if you start to sweat, cut back on your activity or unzip your jacket a bit.
- Stay hydrated – dehydration increases the risk of developing frostbite. Even if you are not thirsty, drink at least one glass of water before you head outside. In addition, avoid alcohol, as it increases your risk for frostbite.
- Symptoms – being aware of symptoms, such as redness, tingling, numbness, pins and needles, and pain.
How to Treat Frostbite
Frostbite can become a serious issue if not treated quickly.
You must get into a shelter and only try to warm the affected areas when there is no further risk of refreezing. Do not remove gloves or shoes if it is likely that you will have to walk any further.
Remove all wet clothes and replace them with dry ones. Covering yourself with blankets will help to keep you warm and make sure the frostbitten parts are protected.
Warm Up Slowly
In order to start warming up, put your hands in your armpits and use your own body warmth. If there are others in your group, you can put your feet in their armpits to warm them up.
Direct heat, such as a fire, should be avoided. The frostbitten areas may not be able to detect high temperatures, and you may burn yourself without realizing.
Once you are inside and out of the elements, remove your gloves or shoes and place your hands or feet in warm water. Try to remove rings and jewelry (do not force this, though). Dry the affected area and wrap it in a loose, dry, non-fluffy bandage.
Get Medical Attention
You should head for the hospital as soon as you possibly can. If you are in pain, you can take the recommended dose of your normal pain relief tablet, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
As the skin is warmed up, it may become bright red, feel hot, and be very painful. If the tissues are damaged, the affected area may turn black because of a lack of blood supply to the area.