Tips for treating, preventing, and recognizing symptoms of frostbite

Tips for treating, preventing, and recognizing symptoms of frostbite

Anyone who grew up skiing, sledding, or building a snowman in the front yard knows that coldness in your extremities that slowly develops into an aching ache as you throw more snowballs, take another lap around the rink, or get back on the elevator for one further ride.

But curing icy ailments can have lasting effects as cold fingers or facial features deteriorate into frostbite. In fact, losing fingers, toes, cheeks, or noses is a real risk when you have a bad cold. Luckily, if you or an adventure buddies fall victim to it, there are ways to prevent this and treat that appendage-threatening cold sore.

What happens to frozen fingers?

Frostbite, and its less serious cousin, frostnip, is, simply put, when skin and tissues—which are mostly water—freeze. This usually happens when exposed to temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, although wind chill also plays an important role. In a wind chill of -17 degrees, frostbite on exposed skin can appear in less than 30 minutes. As mentioned above, the most vulnerable areas are your fingers, toes and facial features like cheeks and nose.

Frostbite tends to affect these areas for one reason: circulation. Or rather a lack of it. You see, when it’s cold outside, your body’s automatic response is to divert blood away from your extremities and toward your core, where the insulation in the form of muscle, fat, and organs can keep it from freezing (and where blood at the most important for survival). .

But more warming blood in your core and less in uninsulated digits means tissues in those unheated areas become more susceptible to freezing.

And when that tissue begins to freeze, ice crystals begin to form and expand as the water solidifies in your skin, cells and blood, explains Darby DeHart, paramedic and ski patrol at Utah’s Brighton Resort. These crystals penetrate tissues and cells like jagged microscopic daggers.

How to recognize frostbite symptoms

Frostbite doesn’t just happen. There will be warning signs and a progression of symptoms. Extremities that are simply cold are likely to ache and feel cold, but this discomfort will subside once you put on a glove or tuck a toe warmer into your boot. However, if left unattended, red and aggravated skin are the first signs that a problem is brewing. The affected area may turn yellowish or gray and become numb and tingly when cold areas suffer frostnip.

If that discomfort turns to pain, and the skin turns white and waxy and won’t spring back when you press it — or your fingers or toes won’t bend — the cold injury has progressed to frostbite and you need to take protective measures and seek medical attention as soon as possible possible.

[Related: How to stay warm when sleeping in the frigid outdoors]

Ideally, however, you should take precautionary measures to avoid having to think about diagnosing and treating cold injuries in the first place.

Take steps to prevent frostbite

Your first line of defense against frostbite is to cover yourself, especially areas like fingers, toes, and facial features where there is no insulation in the form of fat or muscle. Wear warm gloves and socks, as well as a hat, neck gaiter, or balaclava that you can pull over your nose and cheeks, and dress in layers. Seriously, bring more clothes than you think you need.

When fabric alone isn’t enough to keep the chill at bay, pack extra warmth in the form of battery-powered heated socks and gloves, or hand and foot warmers. These can be lifesavers in freezing temperatures and keep sensitive body parts warm for hours.

Frostbite Treatment Tips

If a cold injury has progressed to frostbite or frostbite, DeHart recommends rewarming the affected area as soon as possible, preferably indoors in water heated to between 100 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit — slightly higher than normal body temperature. The hotter and you could do more damage, so low and slow is the rule. Soak the affected area until it is no longer white and waxy.

But DeHart insists that you should only rewarm a frozen area if you are absolutely sure you can keep the area warm. If you’re stuck outside without heat, perhaps while winter camping or if you’ve injured yourself skiing and are waiting for help, it’s better to simply wrap the area to protect it from further exposure but leave it cold, DeHart instructs.

She explains that’s because ice crystals, when they pierce tissue, aren’t clean and sharp like perfectly cylindrical icicles — they’re irregular and misshapen. And when they melt and refreeze, they do so in a different form, piercing the fabric in new and terrifying ways. This can lead to further damage as frostbite begins to destroy the dermal and subcutaneous layers deeper.

When to see a doctor

Any time you think you’ve suffered frostbite, get to the hospital as soon as possible. Still, it’s important to realize that depending on the severity of the injury, healing can be a nerve-racking process while you wait to see if you end up losing part of the wounded appendage, DeHart warns. Once damaged tissue is reheated, the affected areas can swell and turn purple or black over the next few days or weeks, a sure sign that an amputation is imminent.

This happens because your body notices the microscopic punctures caused by the tissue freezing and tries to heal itself by clotting. But that often shuts off circulation entirely and can result in losing part of the affected area, DeHart says.

Hospitals are trying to find ways to keep vessels open to damaged tissue using blood clots and fibrinolytic therapies to keep blood flow strong and prevent blood clots from forming, but this treatment is still experimental.

What not to do if you have frostbite

If you end up freezing to death, there are a few things you shouldn’t do. If blisters form, do not break or pop them as you may cause more tissue damage. And if your skin turns white and waxy, don’t rub or massage it to warm it back up. Your tissues are fragile at this point, and you could peel off the skin, DeHart says.

stay safe and warm

Whatever you do, if any part of your body starts to hurt from the cold, don’t strain or wait to pay attention where attention is needed. Mainly because after a one-off frostbite or frostbite, you’re more likely to suffer from it again. Listen to your body and if the cold becomes a problem, deal with it immediately. “Preventive medicine is always the best medicine,” says DeHart. Not only could you save your fingers or toes, but you’ll enjoy your time outdoors more if you don’t feel pain or discomfort from the cold.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *