You have probably already heard of frostbite. It is often given as an example of one of the dangers faced by Antarctic explorers, and severe cases of frostbite aren’t uncommon local news stories. Snowmobilers, skiers, and mountain climbers are all known to require double leg amputations after sustaining frostbite.
If you’re blessed to live in Minnesota, then you don’t have the liberty of disregarding frostbite as something that only happens to other people. Frostbite is common here. Hennepin Healthcare of Minneapolis recently treated 33 patients for frostbite in a single week – and deaths resulting from cold-related illnesses, which include frostbite, are increasing.
Now that the weather is getting colder, it’s a good time to review the basics of frostbite. What is it? How do you avoid it? And how do you treat it if you get it?
What Is Frostbite?
By definition, frostbite is tissue damage caused by exposure to freezing temperatures. The colder the temperature, the higher your risk of frostbite. When it is 0° F outside, exposed skin can develop frostbite in about 30 minutes. When it is -15° F, frostbite can strike in half that time – or even faster, if there is a wind chill.
How exactly do subzero temperatures damage soft tissues? Let’s use skin as an example. Skin is approximately 64% water; and water, as you are already aware, freezes at temperatures of 32° F and lower. When surrounding air is too cold to be warded away by the body’s own heat, the water in skin freezes. Water expands when it freezes, which ruptures skin cells. Water also forms sharp crystals when it becomes solid, which only inflicts further damage to skin.
Frostbite doesn’t merely threaten the skin. All soft tissues, which include muscles, tendons, blood vessels and nerves, are vulnerable to frostbite. That said, the hands, feet, nose, lips and ears are most likely to be affected. That’s because the human body restricts blood flow to the extremities when it senses a reduction in core temperature. It does so to prevent further heat loss before it can threaten vital organs.
Frostbite also doesn’t solely damage soft tissues by freezing them. Electrolyte shifts, pH alterations and microvascular damage are all caused by frostbite. Thrombosis and inflammatory reperfusion only present further issues while soft tissues return to normal temperature.
How Do You Avoid Frostbite?
Avoiding frostbite is as simple as limiting your exposure to freezing temperatures. Easier said than done if you live in the Midwest, of course, which is why you should recognize all the symptoms of frostbite:
- Cold, prickling sensation on the skin
- Skin that appears to be hard or waxy
- Skin that is discolored: red, white, purple, brown, gray, or any other color which isn’t normal for your natural skin tone
- Clumsiness (a result of stiffening joints and muscles)
If you notice any of these symptoms, it is imperative that you retreat to warm shelter. Doing so can ensure that you only receive the mildest form of frostbite: frostnip, which does not damage skin permanently.
If frostbite is allowed to continue, your skin may begin to feel warm and change color. This is superficial frostbite, which causes the skin to take on a mottled appearance when it is rewarmed. Stinging, burning and swelling are all common symptoms of superficial frostbite, as are large blisters.
Deep frostbite is the most severe form of frostbite. It causes the skin to turn black and insensitive, and also affects the soft tissues lying beneath it. When these tissues die, they become necrotic – and life-threatening, until they are amputated.
How Do You Treat Frostbite?
Never forget Desiderius Erasmus’ universally applicable advice: prevention is better than cure. Wear sufficiently warm clothing. Limit the amount of time you spend in freezing temperatures. Know the aforementioned warning signs of frostbite, and take immediate action whenever you experience them.
When you begin to experience frostbite, proceed to warm shelter as soon as possible. Keep your hands tucked under your armpits, and shield your face with a scarf or any other covering. If your feet are frostbitten, you can make your recovery less painful by avoiding walking, if possible.
Once you are somewhere warm, remove any wet clothing you are wearing. Next, place any chilled extremities in warm (105 to 110 °F) water for 20 to 30 minutes, or until full sensation returns. You may apply a warm, damp washcloth to your face and ears. Do not warm frostbitten skin with direct heat, as doing so may only exacerbate tissue damage.
Drinking warm liquids can help to restore a healthy core temperature. But do not drink alcohol! While liquor does provide a warming sensation, it actually cools your skin further by dilating the blood vessels within it. If you experience severe pain while blood flow returns to your skin, you may take an over-the-counter pain medication.
When Should You See a Doctor for Frostbite?
If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms of deep frostbite, then you should seek immediate medical attention:
- Skin that has turned black
- Skin that is hard and remains cold to the touch
- Joints or muscles that no longer work correctly
- Pain, swelling, or inflammation around the frostbitten area
If you believe you have suffered severe frostbite, then we encourage you to contact Twin Cities Foot & Ankle Clinic in Golden Valley, MN today. Our podiatrists specialize in foot care, and will ensure you receive the correct treatment for frostbite on any other parts of your body.