Winter is officially here and with temperatures dipping to below freezing in many areas, frostbite can be pose a danger to people who are overly exposed to the cold. In some cases frostbite can happen in a matter of minutes. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) warns that: "It takes only minutes for exposed skin to become frostbitten if the temperature falls below 20 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind is blowing at 20 miles per hour or more," says Taizoon Baxamusa, MD, spokesperson for the AAOS. "The wind chill factor combined with below freezing temperatures is a dangerous combination for anyone venturing outside in such weather.
Frostbite most commonly affects those parts of the body which are furthest from the heart such as the fingers, toes, nose and ear lobes. Symptoms of mild frostbite called frostnip may include a loss of feeling in the extremities and a white or pale appearance to the skin. You may feel a pins and needles sensation. If the area is warmed you may experience swelling, itching, burning, and deep pain. Symptoms which indicate a more severe exposure are numbness, and a grayish-yellow or grayish-blue color to the skin. Blisters may form filled with a clear or milky fluid. In very extreme cases the skin will appear black and may result in damage to skin tissue or even bones, muscles, and nerves.
Here are some ways that you can prevent frostbite:
Know that some medical conditions put you at special risk for getting frostbite. If you have any of the following conditions you should probably try to stay indoors when the temperature is below freezing. The U.S. National Library of Medicine medline resource warns that people with peripheral vascular disease, diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, and Raynaud's disease are particularly susceptible to getting frostbite.
There are also some medications which can make one more at risk for getting frostbite. The National Health Care for the Homeless Council reports that some medications can hinder the body's response to the cold thereby increasing the risk to frostbite or even hypothermia. These medications include: "...beta-blockers (e.g. propranolol or InderalTM), clonidine (CatapresTM), meperidine (DemerolTM), and neuroleptics (e.g. haloperidol or HaldolTM)." If you take any of these medications be extremely cautious about being outside for very long when the temperature dips below freezing.
People who drink or smoke may also be at more risk for frostbite and hypothermia. Alcohol is a depressant which slows down the heart and hinders the ability to gage how cold it really is. Smokers are more likely to experience problems with blood circulation increasing the danger of frostbite. If you drink, smoke, or engage in recreational drug use, you should be very wary of being outdoors in freezing temperatures.
Take heed of the wind chill warnings and advisories. The U.S. Government National Weather service says that the air temperature has to be below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit) in order for frostbite to develop on exposed skin but wind chill can bring the temperature to below freezing for humans and animals. The wind chill temperature is the rate of heat loss from skin exposed to cold and wind. It feels colder because as the wind increases, it draws heat from the body and can lower internal body temperature. Here is an example of how the wind chill factor can contribute to the risk of frostbite. If the air temperature is 0 degrees Fahrenheit, with the wind blowing at 15mph, this can result in a wind chill of minus 19 degrees Fahrenheit and any exposed skin can freeze in thirty minutes.
Damp or wet clothing will increase your risk for frostbite. Make sure to come inside to change into dry clothing if your clothing becomes wet.
Mittens are better than gloves for keeping the hands warm. But another strategy is to wear gloves under mittens.
Dress in several layers of clothing to trap body heat. Most outdoor guides suggest that you wear synthetic fabrics such as polypropylene for those layers closest to the body as they will not trap moisture. Outer garments should be water repellent.
Half of your body heat can be lost from your head. Make sure to wear a hat and scarf or ski mask to protect your head and face.
Avoid wearing too tight of clothing and especially too tight boots as this will decrease blood flow and put you more at risk for frostbite.
If frostbite is suspected The American Red Cross recommends that you get medical attention right away. If help is not readily available they recommend that you move the person to a warm place and gently warm the affected area in warm water (100-105 degrees F) until the skin feels warm. Do not break any blisters, rub the affected skin, apply direct heat to the area, or allow the skin to refreeze. You can loosely bandage the affected area or place sterile gauze between frostbitten fingers or toes.
The best recommendation to prevent frostbite is to stay inside as much as possible when the temperatures dip below freezing. If you have to go out remember to follow the tips given in this post of how to dress for the cold and try not to stay outdoors for long. Protect your skin this winter with these tips and more from My Skin Care Connection.
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) (2009, January 15). Tips To Prevent Frostbite During These Sub-zero Temperatures.
National Safety Council First Aid and Emergency Care Workbook, Alton L. Thygerson, Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Inc., 1987.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Weather Service: Windchill Terms and Definitions