Don’t let this chilling health issue cut into your wintertime fun.
By Tom and Joanne O’Toole
Frostbite is defined as damage to the skin and underlying tissues caused by extreme cold. In its most severe stage, frostbite can cause the skin and tissue to freeze and turn gangrenous, requiring the affected body part to be amputated. Talk about drastic. This only occurs in extreme cases, but it can happen if precautions aren’t taken.
Frostbite is a serious issue and can happen even when the actual temperature outside is above freezing. Wind chill or rapid movement through cold air (skiing, snowmobiling, etc.) can create a freezing effect on exposed skin and cause frostbite. Even a few minutes of exposure in bitter cold or cold and windy conditions can cause frostbite if the skin is unprotected.
Frostbite occurs when body tissue is injured by exposure to intense cold for a period of time, causing circulation in that area to slow or stop. Usually the fingers, toes, and ears are the first body parts affected, but the nose and cheeks, as well as the hands and feet also are susceptible to frostbite. The condition can be accelerated if the body parts are wet (or even moist) and nothing is done to rewarm them and restore circulation. If frostbite is allowed to persist for any length of time, ice crystals can actually form in the cells of the tissue.
There are essentially three stages of frostbite. The first is redness of the skin, accompanied by pain and a stinging sensation. The second is when numbness sets in. The last and most dangerous stage is when the tissue itself begins to freeze.
At the first sign of frostbite, get out of the cold, drink something hot, and slowly warm the affected areas by immersing them in tepid (not hot) water. Frostbitten flesh should NOT be rubbed, as was suggested in the past. However, in order to improve circulation, the temperature of the affected tissue must rise.
In severe cases of frostbite, victims will develop blisters on the frostbitten areas. Do not break the blisters. In this state the skin will probably appear gray or white, and the need for medical assistance is immediate. Gangrene can result if each area is not warmed and treated. This is when a victim has the potential of experiencing irreversible damage to these areas, which can lead to amputation.
In the case of severe frostbite, the immersion method of treatment is the most effective. Place the affected extremity in water maintained at slightly more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This should continue until normal color returns to the affected area. The thawing period usually will cause teeth-clenching pain and severe tingling. However, elevating the affected area can help reduce these sensations until the circulation has been restored. The sooner the warming process is started for a frostbite victim, the less chance of permanent damage being done. It’s recommended that immediate medical treatment be sought for anyone who experiences frostbite symptoms.
Of course, this is easier said than done if you and/or the victim are out in the elements and shelter or immediate transportation isn’t available. That’s when you should seek cover under an evergreen tree and build a warming fire.
People who might have had a mild case of frostbite to the ears, toes, and fingers will find that the burning and itching sensations have a tendency to recur when these same areas are again subjected to the cold (or even heat). Exposing these body parts to intense cold can be very painful (we speak from experience).
The chance of getting frostbite whenever you’re outside in sub-freezing temperatures should be taken seriously. In these situations, the best thing you can do is to take steps to prevent it, and it all starts with using common sense. Layer your winter clothing, and make sure your ears are covered. You can work wonders with earmuffs and a scarf. Shield your cheeks and nose as well. To protect your fingers, wear a good pair of gloves or mittens. The tips of the fingers usually are the first to feel the burning sensation of frostbite. Warm, dry socks are needed to insulate your toes and feet, and make sure your footwear is waterproof. When selecting your clothing, remember that wool is the only fabric that keeps you warm even when it’s wet.
Whenever venturing into situations where the danger of cold and frostbite exists, there are four essential items to bring along with you. Always carry an extra pair of gloves, an extra pair of warm socks, a ski mask, and a supply of waterproof matches or a dependable lighter. Building a warming fire could save your life or the lives of others. These items could be invaluable in staving off the possibility of frostbite should you find yourself in the wrong outdoor situation.
By dressing appropriately, knowing the signs of frostbite, and getting inside should the symptoms appear, you can spend time outdoors in the winter without it being harmful to your health. And once you’ve come in from the cold, a little hot chocolate on a wintry day is always a good idea, even if you aren’t suffering frostbite.