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Frostbite Detection and Prevention

What is frostbite?

Frostbite is an injury to the skin and/or tissues under the skin that is caused by freezing. At its extreme, frostbite will cause loss of feeling and discoloration to the affected area(s) that can lead to permanent body damage, putting the individual at risk for amputation.  Obviously, frostbite by definition implies exposure to cold temperatures. However, extremes in temperature are also amplified by wind, humidity and wet weather.

Who is at risk?

Everyone is susceptible. Still there are certain individuals who will be a greater risk.

  • Children are at greater risk than adults because their loss of heat is faster. Children will often play long and hard, ignoring how uncomfortable or cold they have become.
  • Elderly
  • People with circulatory disorders.
  • People from tropical climates.
  • Smokers have decreased blood flow to arms and legs.
  • Homeless People
  • Alcoholics

Situational Risks

  • Car accidents or breakdowns.
  • Recreational drug and alcohol misuse.

Recognize the symptoms of frostbite

Frostbite is classified by three levels of severity:

  • FIRST DEGREE:   Often called frostnip, first-degree frostbite presents as numbed, white skin that feels stiff to the touch.  With frostnip, the underlying tissue is warm and soft.  If properly treated, the blistering, scarring and infection risk are minimal.
  • SECOND DEGREE: Second degree or superficial frostbite will present as white to blue skin that feels hard and frozen. Underlying tissue is still unharmed; however the risk of blistering and permanent damage is greatly increased. It is this increased risk that mandates proper medical attention by trained professionals.
  • THIRD DEGREE: Third degree or deep frostbite presents as white, blotchy and/or blue skin. The tissue underneath is damaged and feels hard and cold. Immediate medical attention is a must for this is a life-threatening situation.

Treating frostbite

For severe frostbite seek immediate medical attention. If you are not able to, begin first aid.

  • Remove any wet clothing from the individual.
  • Keep the individual warm with dry cloths and blankets.
  • Provide the individual something warm to drink.
  • Submerge affected area in warm water (101-104 degrees). If no thermometer is available, test water with your elbow. The water should not be to hot for your elbow.
  • Maintain water temperature by adding warm water as needed.
  • Affected area should remain in the water until it becomes pink.
  • As blood flow to the area is re-established, the individual may notice a burning and/or painful sensation. Provide reassurance.
  • Use a soft washcloth with the warm water for areas that cannot be submerged.
  • After the warming process dry the area gently. Do not rub the area. Wrap area gently in clean gauze bandages.
  • If blisters have formed, do not disturb them. The area may also turn blue, red or purple.
  • Seek medical assistance as soon as possible.

Treatment for frostbite goes far beyond the initial emergency room visit in severe cases. It usually occurs over a few weeks to months.  Tissue damage and repair may not be apparent immediately, resulting in surgery some 6 months later.  Initial numbness and throbbing is replaced by tingling.  Lasting effects include chronic pain, sensitivity to cold, and sensory loss.

Frostbite prevention

  • With extreme cold temperatures, stay inside.
  • Be aware of wet, windy days. Wind-chill will significantly lower actual temperatures.
  • Do not go into the cold after a recent shower/bath.
  • Dress for the weather.
  • Layer up. Wear layers of clothing such as thermal underwear, cotton socks, pants, sweaters, and then add your outerwear that includes moisture resistant materials.  Remember not to bundle up tightly, maintain good circulation.
  • Come out of the cold in regular intervals to warm up and inspect skin for signs of frostbite.
  • If you are away from home and know you are to be out in the cold, bring extra clothing.
  • Pay attention to your body. If you notice any tingling or numbness, get out of the cold and inspect areas.
  • Keep dry. Wet cloths should be changed immediately.