When your skin and the tissues underneath are exposed to freezing temperatures for an extended period of time, you’re at risk of a condition called frostbite. Although frostbite can be treated, it can also be serious and cause long-term effects.
Fortunately, frostbite is a completely preventable condition. By learning how to identify the early symptoms of frostbite and knowing what steps you can take to prevent it, you can enjoy the cold weather without fear of frostbite. Here’s everything you need to know to keep yourself safe during the colder months.
How do I know if I have frostbite?
You may notice skin that’s left exposed during freezing temperatures can easily get red or sore. When this occurs, it’s known as frostnip — an early sign of frostbite. If you notice your skin becoming red or sore, you should find a warm shelter immediately.
If you’ve developed frostbite, your symptoms will be dependent on how deep the frostbite goes into the body. There are three stages of frostbite: early stage, intermediate stage and advanced stage. Here’s what you should know about each.
Early stage of frostbite
When you’re suffering from early frostbite, you will notice your skin turns a pale yellow or white color. It may also be accompanied by itching, stinging, burning and a feeling of “pins and needles.”
Intermediate stage of frostbite
If your frostbite has progressed to the intermediate stage, your skin will likely harden and appear shiny or waxy. As the skin thaws, blisters filled with fluid or blood may form on the skin.
Advanced stage of frostbite
The most advanced form of frostbite can result in the skin hardening severely and feeling cold to the touch. It’s also common for the skin to appear blue before it starts to turn black at this stage.
What causes frostbite?
In the same way that water freezes as the temperature drops, your extremities can also freeze when exposed to weather that is extremely cold. It’s also possible for them to freeze when you touch a very cold object such as frozen metal or ice.
Because they are farther from your core (and therefore receive a decrease in blood flow), your fingers, hands, feet and toes are most likely to suffer from frostbite; however, it’s possible that your ears and nose can be affected as well.
The amount of time it takes for your skin to become frostbit depends entirely on the temperature and wind factor outside. In most cases, frostbite occurs faster than most people think it will. It’s possible for frostbite to occur in as little as five minutes in weather that’s frigid.
How Is frostbite diagnosed?
While there’s no specific way to test for frostbite, it is possible for your doctor to effectively diagnose you with frostbite. He or she will want to know how long you were exposed to the cold and exactly what the temperature was.
Your doctor will then examine your skin closely and search for any potential damage to the bone or muscle. If damage is suspected, an X-ray or other diagnostic test may be recommended.
How is frostbite treated?
The form of treatment for frostbite is similar no matter the stage; however, if you’ve suffered intermediate or advanced stages of frostbite, you should consider professional medical care to ensure your skin heals correctly.
Treatment for early stages of frostbite
If you’ve been exposed to cold temperatures and suspect you’re suffering from an early stage of frostbite, it’s important that you find a warm place to go as quickly as possible. Avoid rubbing your skin as this can damage it if it’s frozen.
While it may be tempting to place your hands or feet in warm water, this could cause further damage. Instead, place any area that’s been affected in warm water (between 104 degrees and 107 degrees Fahrenheit) — or place a warm washcloth on the impacted areas that can’t be submerged in water.
As your skin thaws, it should begin to heal. You may notice it gets red; this is normal. It’s also possible that you will feel a painful stinging or prickling sensation that’s commonly described as “pins and needles.”
Treatment for intermediate and advanced stages of frostbite
If you’ve suffered from more severe frostbite, you should seek professional medical care. In a hospital or urgent care clinic, they will work quickly to warm you up and restore blood flow to the area that’s affected. The most important first step is stopping further damage from occurring.
The medical staff will also most likely:
- Place warm sponges on the area of your body that is frozen
- Give you pain medication to help with nerve pain as your skin heals
- Recommend specific imaging testing, such as an MRI, to help determine the damage
- Scrape off the skin that is already dead
Research shows that aspirin or other blood thinners, when given within 24 hours of rewarming, can help to restore the blood flow in your body if you’re suffering from severe frostbite.
Although unlikely, in very severe cases of frostbite (where you have blackened skin tissue and blood flow that won’t return to normal), it’s possible that surgery will be needed to remove areas of dead tissue to prevent infection and additional damage.
How to prevent frostbite
If you’re planning to spend time outdoors in cold weather, there are steps you should take to protect yourself from frostbite.
- Wear loose layers. This will allow body heat to circulate. When you wear clothes that are tight, it actually increases your chance of getting frostbite.
- Always cover your head and ears. Whether you choose a wool or fleece hat, make sure that it includes ear flaps that can protect your head and ears.
- Buy insulated mittens or gloves. When you’re in severely cold weather, avoid taking your mittens or gloves off for things like texting. If you must use your phone, try to find a pair of gloves or mittens that have textured fingertips.
- Invest in appropriate socks and shoes. Because feet are susceptible to frostbite, it’s a good idea to wear multiple pairs of socks (preferably wool). You should also wear waterproof boots that keep your ankles covered.
- If you get sweaty, unzip for a bit. Wearing wet clothing leaves you highly vulnerable to frostbite. If your clothes get wet due to sweat or snow, make sure to remove anything that’s wet enough to cause damage.
If you believe you’re suffering from frostbite of any degree, it’s important that you get medical attention as soon as possible.
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