Developing Frostbite During Cold Weather Activities

Who doesn’t love spending time outdoors in the heart of a Minnesota winter? Cold weather activities abound, with opportunities for hiking, ice fishing, hunting, trapping, skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, snowmobiling and more. Along with all of this winter fun comes the risk of developing frostbite on your extremities, with your feet and toes being particularly vulnerable. It’s important to protect your body from frostbite and to know what frost bite on toes looks like.

Frostbite can develop quickly, especially if you’re distracted by whatever activity you’re involved in. The Midwest often sees daytime temperatures that hover just above, or well below, zero. It only takes about a half-hour for exposed skin to suffer frost damage at those temps, when the windspeed is 15 mph. The colder the temps or the higher the windspeed, the faster frostbite can occur.

What is Frostbite?

The cells in your body are filled with water. As this water freezes and expands, ice crystals form and cell damage occurs, known as frostbite. While we often think only exposed skin is vulnerable to frostbite, even when covered with socks and shoes or boots, your feet and toes may fall prey to damage as well. Feet sweat, particularly when we are active. This sweat is absorbed by our stockings and boot linings and can freeze under the right conditions.

Who is At Risk of Frostbite?

When toes endure direct contact with frozen socks or boots for prolonged periods of time in cold temperatures, frostbite may occur. According to PubMed.gov, the following put individuals at increased risk of frostbite:

  • Previous Frost Bite
  • Diabetes
  • Neuropathy
  • Peripheral Vascular Disease
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol Use
  • Fatigue
  • Age

Tips to Avoid Frostbite

The best way to avoid frostbite on your feet and toes in Minnesota and other cold areas across the country is to use common sense. While these tips may seem like “no brainers,” it’s easy to think you’re only going to be outside for a short time, or that you’ll recognize when it’s time to head indoors. Remember, even veteran skiers and hikers have experienced frost-bitten toes and feet. A whole-body approach to keeping warm is important.

Wear Layers: It is advised to dress in a few lighter layers than to rely on one bulky layer. Body heat is trapped between each layer, keeping you warmer longer. The layer closest to your skin should be moisture wicking, and the topmost layer should be waterproof. Good quality moisture-wicking socks and insulated boots are a must.
No Foot Creams: Rubbing a layer of cream on your feet before heading out into the cold is not advised. Creams and ointments increase the likelihood of frostbite.
Stay Hydrated: As we said, your cells are filled with water. As your body sweats, this water can become depleted. Much like a water puddle, the less water that is in a cell, the quicker it freezes.
Carry Spare Clothing: Having an extra set of clothing with you, especially socks and gloves, will allow you to change out wet or damp items or to add another layer when cold sets in.
Don’t Drink Alcohol: Not only does alcohol impair your ability to judge how cold your toes have become, alcohol dilates the blood vessels and speeds up heat loss, even if it feels like it warms you up from within.
Keep an Eye on Weather: Before you head outside, check what the current temperature and windchill is and beware of anticipated changes throughout the day. In addition, stop what you’re doing periodically and gauge the situation yourself.
Inform Someone of Where You’re Going: Let someone know where you hare headed and when to expect you back. If you accidently leave a trail or become hurt, wet or stranded, cold temps will eventually take a toll, no matter how prepared you were when you left home.

Symptoms of Frostbite on Feet and Toes

Frostnip: In the initial stages of frostbite, your toes may hurt or feel numb or prickly. They may become cold to the touch and turn red. This is called “frostnip,” and although serious damage has not yet happened, it is on the horizon if you do not seek shelter and warm up again.
Superficial Frostbite: As things progress from the frostnip stage, frostbite is imminent. Skin will turn pale or white and warm to the touch. As you warm the skin, it will likely take on a mottled appearance. You may feel a stinging or burning sensation, and swelling and blistering may occur.
Severe Frostbite: With prolonged exposure to the cold, more layers of the skin become affected. Skin will develop a grayish-yellow to bluish-white cast, become hard and waxy in appearance, and feel numb as ice crystals form in cells. As the situation progresses, you may even lose your ability to feel heat or cold or to detect pain. It may become difficult or impossible to bend your toes or ankles as you lose function in your joints. Large blisters may develop a day or two after warming, and dead tissue will turn black and hard.

Lasting Damage from Frostbite

Frostbite can have lasting effects. You may become increasingly sensitive to cold; it may cause your toes to cramp or hurt. Frostbitten areas may suffer permanent numbness and skin discoloration. Toenails may become deformed or fall of altogether. Frostbite arthritis (joint pain) and hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating) are possible, and growth plates in children may be permanently damaged. Additionally, you will be at increased risk of incurring frostbite again.

Have Your Feet Looked at Soon

At Twin Cities Foot & Ankle Clinic, we understand that Minnesotans must get out and work and play, even in cold weather. Taking simple steps to protect your feet and toes from frostbite is worth the effort. If you’d like to learn more about frostbite, how to avoid it, or would like to have your feet inspected for possible frost damage, please schedule a visit at one of our Twin Cities area clinics today.