American Osteopathic Association

Advancing the distinctive philosophy and practice of osteopathic medicine

Fighting Off Frostbite

Couple walking in snowMaybe you live in a state that experiences a cold, blustery winter or perhaps you’re planning a vacation to a cooler climate. If so, frostbite is a condition that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

When you’re exposed to severe cold, the possibility exists for you to suffer from frostbite—the freezing of skin or tissues. The areas of the body most susceptible to frostbite are the fingers, toes, hands, feet, ears, nose and cheeks.

Frostbite occurs when blood vessels in the skin constrict. Because the blood flow has decreased, the fluid in and around the skin cells develops ice crystals.

This condition can be characterized into two categories—superficial frostbite and deep frostbite. With superficial frostbite, gray or yellow patches appear on the affected areas while the skin remains soft and pliable. However, after thawing, the skin looks red and flaky.

When dealing with deep frostbite, the skin looks waxy and feels solid. As it thaws, it may turn blue or purple and large blisters may appear.

Preventive Measures

Certain measures can be taken in order to prevent this potentially dangerous condition. It’s vital to wear loose-fitting layers when you must venture outside in severely cold weather, and remember to cover vulnerable areas of the body like the nose and ears. Also, it’s important to maintain fluid levels by consuming warm, non-alcoholic, caffeine-free drinks regularly.

Another tip for preventing frostbite is to stay dry. According to the National Safety Council, wet clothing loses 90% of its insulating value.

The complications of frostbite can be severe: gangrene; amputation of dead or infected tissue, especially fingers, toes, nose or ears; and cardiac arrest if the frostbite occurs with total body hypothermia when the body’s temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you think you have frostbite, physicians recommend the following:

  • Go to a warm location.

  • Seek medical attention for treatment as quickly as possible.

  • Elevate the affected areas, particularly if swelling occurs.

  • Rest the injured areas. For instance, if your feet have been frostbitten, don’t walk around.

  • Leave blisters intact.

  • Do not rub the affected areas to warm them. Instead, place the areas in warm water, warm blankets or against warm body parts.

  • Do not expose the affected areas to direct heat – fire, stove, radiator, etc.

  • Do not put ointments or bandages on the affected areas. If fingers or toes are affected, place sterile gauze between them to absorb moisture and keep them from sticking together.

  • Do not use alcohol or nicotine because it affects the blood flow.

 

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