Tips to prevent and treat frostbite

When wintry weather settles in, How can you prevent frostbite?

Emergency medicine specialist Thomas Tallman has seen more than his share of cold-weather injuries as a staff physician at the Cleveland Clinic’s Emergency Services Institute and as an on-call doctor at the football games of the Cleveland Browns.

“When you’re wet or exposed to high winds, core body temperatures can drop quickly and you can get into trouble pretty fast,” he says.

What is frostbite?

Frostbite is literally the freezing of body tissue (usually skin). Fingers, toes, ears, and the nose are the areas most vulnerable to frostbite.

There are three degrees of frostbite, including:

Frostnip, which usually affects the face, ears, or fingertips. While the skin may feel numb, frostnip does not lead to permanent tissue damage.
Superficial frostbite, in which the outer skin is affected.
Deep frostbite, in which the skin and underlying tissue freezes. Permanent damage is possible, depending on how long and how deeply the tissue is frozen.
Frostbite is caused by either prolonged exposure to cold temperatures or shorter exposure to very cold temperatures.

What are the symptoms of  frostbite?

Many people with frostnip or frostbite experience numbness. A “pins and needles” sensation, severe pain, itching, and burning are all common when the affected area is warmed and blood starts flowing again.

Skin may look white, grayish-yellow, or even black with severe frostbite, and it may feel hard, waxy, and numb. Blistering is also common.

Who is at risk?

Anyone can end up with frostbite if exposed to frigid conditions for too long. Naturally, those who work outside in the cold or engage in cold-weather sports may be vulnerable if they aren’t adequately prepared.

But some people are also more susceptible to extremely cold weather than others, including:

The very young and the very old.
Diabetes patients and people with other medical conditions associated with poor circulation.
People with heart conditions who take beta-blockers, which decrease the flow of blood to the skin.
Those who smoke and/or drink alcohol while exposed to cold weather.
Wearing wet clothes, not wearing enough clothes, and exposure to high winds increase vulnerability.

Even people who think they are prepared for the cold weather may not be, Tallman says. He recalls one Browns game last season which started in the rain and ended in an icy snowstorm.

“Many of the tailgaters got pretty soaked before the game and then when the temperatures dropped they got into trouble,” he says.

What are the treatments for frostnip/frostbite?

Get out of the cold and get out of wet clothing as soon as possible and remove all constrictive jewelry and clothing. Then immerse the affected area in warm, but not hot, water.

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