If you live in unforgiving, extreme cold weather, you are probably familiar with the skin condition known as frostbite. Learn the correct steps for first aid treatment, and what you should avoid doing to reduce the risk of further complications.
When a body part is frostbitten, it indicates that the skin and the tissues directly beneath the affected area have been frozen. Typically, smaller and more exposed appendages of the body are more prone to frostbite due to the distance from the core of the body. For example, appendages are more likely to get frostbite because it is harder for the body to adequately deliver heat to those areas. Sometimes, frostbite can happen when touching an extremely freezing surface, such as metals in frozen weather.
Frostbite can cause permanent nerve and tissue damage if proper medical treatment does not take place immediately. In turn, if the damaged nerves and tissues are not taken care of, it can lead to infections and more serious necrotic medical conditions that may need amputation. Common affected areas include: nose, chin, cheeks, ears, fingers and toes.
The first stage of frostbite is commonly referred to as frost nip. While it is mostly characterized by skin irritation due to cold, no permanent damage has happened yet. Often times, the skin may feel so numb that you may not realize you have gotten frostbite until someone else points it out. If you feel like you’re experiencing symptoms or signs of frost nip, be sure to take steps to resolve the problem immediately to prevent it from turning into frostbite.
Signs that may indicate that you have frost nip or frostbite include:
- Redness or pain on the affected area
- Discoloration, such as graying or yellowing of the skin
- Numbness or inability to feel anything at the affected site
- Skin that feels waxy or strangely firm
Sometimes, frostbite happens in conjunction with, or is an indicator of hypothermia, a condition characterized by the body losing heat faster than generating heat. Hypothermia is more medically urgent than frostbite, as it can be life-threatening, so be sure to resolve it first.
What to Do – First Aid Treatment
While you are waiting for medical treatment, here are a few things you can do to relieve the potential damage of frostbite:
- Check to make sure the affected individual does not have symptoms of hypothermia.
- Get to a warm room or environment immediately.
- Do not put pressure on frostbitten body parts, as it will increase the damage.
- Slowly warm the frostbitten body part, such as immersing it under warm water. Be sure the water is warm to the touch, not hot.
- It can also be helpful to use body heat to warm up the frostbite. For example, the armpit can be a good place to warm up frozen fingers.
- As frostbitten parts warm up, it may turn purple and be painful. That is actually a good sign, signifying the functioning of nerves.
- If the location of frostbite continues to remain numb and senseless after warming, be sure to seek immediate medical attention, as it may signify tissue death. A physician will be able to determine the extent of the damage, prescribe antibiotics, and assist in proper tissue removal as needed.
What NOT To Do:
- Do not rub or massage the frostbitten part vigorously to try and generate friction heat. It will only further damage the frozen tissue and skin.
- Do not rub the affected area with more snow or ice. It will cause further freeze damage.
- Do not use heating pads, heat stoves, or heat from a fire or heating lamp to warm up the frostbite. Since nerve damage may already have taken place, you may burn and further damage the wound without feeling it.
If frostbite is left untreated, or dealt with improperly, it may result in further medical conditions. They include, but are not limited to:
- Frostbite arthritis due to changes in cartilage
- Gangrene, which is tissue necrosis due to blood flow interruption to the affected area
- Permanent numbness or abnormalities of sensation in affected area
- Increased sensitivity to cold and getting frostbite again.
- Other growth defects
Tips for Prevention
Perhaps the most effective way to prevent frostbite is to keep all body parts, especially vulnerable areas, warm at all times. Here are some tips you can employ to prevent future cases of frostbite:
- Employ regular exercise to increase blood circulation.
- Dress warmly and appropriately for extreme cold weather – layering is best, and be sure to have waterproof and windproof layers as well.
- Limit exposure time to extreme cold weather.
- Cover your appendages well. Invest in mittens, hats, ear muffs, warm socks and winter masks.
- Prepare emergency supplies and warm clothing when you know you are travelling in cold weather.