We’re right in the middle of what’s shaping up to be a brutal winter. With the extreme cold temperatures comes a higher risk of freeze injuries like frostbite. But exactly how much do you know about frostbite? Being the most common injury associated with extreme cold, it’s necessary for those of us living in the cold weather to understand how to prevent, spot and take care of frostbite.
Frostbite occurs when you’re exposed to freezing temperatures or high winds and your skin and tissue actually start to freeze solid from a lack of blood circulation. It’s most common in unexposed areas far from your heart, like your nose, ears and toes. If you work outside, participate in winter sports, or have a condition that affects your circulation, you have a higher risk of developing frostbite during the frigid months.
Frostbite Risk Factors and Prevention
The lower the temperature, the faster frostbite can occur. High-speed winds make you more susceptible to frostbite as well. It’s important to stay as warm as possible by choosing smart winter clothing. Wearing multiple layers is a good start, and if you have an outer waterproof layer, that’s even better.
Don’t forget about your feet, hands and head! I know ski masks aren’t exactly a popular fashion statement, but if you plan on spending a significant amount of time outside, I would invest in one to protect your face too.
Another big risk factor is circulation. Consuming alcohol and smoking cigarettes both negatively affect your circulation and ability to keep your body temperature high. Wearing wet or tight clothes – especially shoes – is another big mistake a lot of people make during the winter. Frostbitten toes are very common, and your feet need to stay dry. If you suffer from any conditions like diabetes or extreme fatigue, note that you’re also more susceptible to freeze injuries and plan accordingly.
Signs of Damage
Frostnip is the first sign of frostbite, and it’s likely that we’ve all experienced some form of it – whether we know it or not. If your skin is cold and starts to feel itchy and uncomfortable, frostnip might be fast approaching. It’s usually followed by a numb and stiff feeling with slight discoloration. Though frostnip isn’t healthy for your skin, it causes no permanent damage once taken care of (see below to learn how).
Phase two of frostbite starts when the top tissues of your skin start to freeze and harden. You’ll experience increased symptoms of numbness and discoloration. While there’s not likely to be any permanent damage, you may experience decreased sensitivity with that area in the future. In addition, painful blisters will most likely appear later on and last for several days or weeks.
Things start to get serious if frostbite is ignored, and you move on to the third and most severe stage. The freezing goes deeper and your muscles, tendons and nerves all freeze solid. Your skin will change in texture and feel hard and waxy. You won’t be able to feel or use that area due to nerve damage, which can potentially be permanent. In the most extreme cases, the area will become infected with gangrene.
Treating Affected Areas
What you can do
If you think an area of your body is frostnipped, find shelter and heat immediately. Take off any wet clothing and gradually warm up the area to gradually increase blood circulation. You’re likely to feel burning or stinging as the temperature changes, but things should go back to normal fairly fast. If the damage is past frostnip and you’re experiencing superficial frostbite, immediately submerge the area in hot water to hasten the process, but be sure to avoid burning yourself.
Seek medical attention
If your skin swells or blisters when you’re trying to treat it, immediately seek medical attention. The goal of treating frostbite is to save as much tissue as possible, and a medical professional will be able to properly heat up your body and reduce your pain. In extreme cases, toes and fingers have to be amputated because of infection or permanent damage, but that’s often not decided until many weeks later.
In the end, it’s all about being aware of the dangers of not protecting ourselves from the extreme conditions of winter.
Do you have any other suggestions or tips? Share them with other readers and make sure to stay warm!