Frostbite 101: How to protect your extremities this winter
February 1, 2017
By Katie Coakley
Sponsored by Kaiser Permanente
EDWARDS — It's the coldest time of year in Colorado. Though some days are deceptively sunny, the risk of cold-related ailments is at its highest. Frostbite is one of the most prevalent cold-related injuries, especially for those who spend extended amounts of time outside.
"Frostbite is a severe, cold-induced injury due to freezing of the tissue," said Dr. Jeannine Benson, internal medicine physician at the Kaiser Permanente Edwards medical office. "It is usually localized and the most common tissues at risk for frostbite are the ears, nose, chin, cheeks, fingers and toes."
How do you get frostbite?
Frostbite is, most commonly, an environmental exposure issue where the skin is exposed to subfreezing temperatures.
"Risk factors include exposure to wind or water, as these increase heat loss," Dr. Benson said. "There are also conditions that limit someone’s ability to deal with cold stress. These include previous frostbite, peripheral vascular disease, exhaustion, malnutrition, dehydration, smoking and also diabetes."
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When the skin is exposed to subfreezing temperatures, frostbite can occur. As frostbite causes tissue death, it can cause permanent loss of that tissue, or create open wounds that are susceptible to infection, Dr. Benson said. Longer term, frostbite can cause increased sensitivity to the cold, increased risk of developing frostbite again, scarring, tissue atrophy, nerve sensation problems and chronic pain.
How to identify — and deal with — frostbite
Here are the signs of frostbite: developing feelings of coldness, numbness and changes in skin color (turning white or gray) in the particular area. Digits can feel clumsy and waxy to the touch. When the skin starts to thaw, blisters can develop.
If you believe that you have, or are developing frostbite, get to a warm environment as soon as possible. However, make sure that you're not going to return to the cold.
"Do not attempt to thaw the area until you are sure there is not a danger of refreezing as this can increase tissue damage," Dr. Benson cautioned. "Additionally, to decrease additional tissue damage, do not walk on frostbitten feet, try to pad or splint the affected area and do not rub an affected area."
Once you are at a hospital under a physicians care, they often have protocols depending on the degree of frostbite that they may implement. This could include administration of medications to help with circulation, infection prophylaxis, surgical consultation and wound care.
Prevention is best
Of course, preventing frostbite is preferable to treating it.
"Frostbite can be prevented if one tries to reduce risk factors: decrease exposure to wind or water," Dr. Benson said. "Avoiding alcohol consumption and smoking are also recommended."
Alcohol causes the blood vessels to dilate, which causes heat loss. It can also alter behavior, which could cause lack of awareness of developing frostbite.
Wearing proper clothing is also helpful in prevention. Clothes that insulate, that are not too tight or permeable to wind are the best. For your most vulnerable bits, mittens are warmer than gloves, and face protection, like a mask or gaiter, can also be helpful.
"Everyone should also pay attention to their body," Dr. Benson said. "If they are feeling excessively cold or have numb areas on their body, go inside and get warm! I think that, living in the climate that we do, (the risk of frostbite) should always be something that people consider when they are spending time outside in subfreezing temperatures."
There are still several months of cold weather ahead, so make sure that you're cognizant of the risks. Bundle up, limit your skin exposure to wind and cold, and stay warm!
For more information on frostbite and how to prevent it, visit kp.org.