In the winter or other cold times of the year, it is important to stay warm and dry. Besides simply remaining comfortable while outdoors, staying out of the cold and humid conditions can actually save your life. There are many risks associated with cold weather, including hypothermia and snow blindness, but frostbite is easily the most famous. Frostbite is a condition that is often misunderstood. While many might say that they have frostbite, people do not realize that frostbite can be a severe issue that can cause major damage. Frostbite is a potentially life threatening issue. From numb fingers and toes to black and dead tissue, frostbite has varying symptoms and consequences.
Table of Contents
- What is Frostbite?
- How to Prevent Frostbite
- How to Identify Frostbite
- What To Do If You Get Frostbite
What is Frostbite?
Frostbite is a condition that is caused by freezing of skin. It is usually the result of overexposure to extremely cold weather. While it might not have seemed like a big deal as a child, frostbite is the reason your parents made sure that you wore a hat and gloves when you went outside during the winter.
While frostbite can occur anytime that a person is experiencing cold weather or is in a cold environment, such as stocking a freezer, frostbite is more likely with critical wind chill conditions and high humidity. Frostbite usually affects the extremities including the fingers, toes, tip of nose, and other exposed parts of the body like parts of the face. However, frostbite can even attack the covered parts of the body in extreme cold. This can include areas beyond just the skin.
How to Prevent Frostbite
Frostbite is definitely preventable. From dressing in layers to choosing insulated clothing, frostbite prevention is all about making smart choices. It is important to know that though frostbite is preventable, you should avoid going outside in extreme cold if, at all, possible. Do not go outside in extreme cold for reasons that are not necessary. This includes sledding, building a snowman, or ice skating, and do not drive in ultra cold weather unless you absolutely have to do so. Getting stranded in these conditions can be dangerous.
Should you find yourself required to be outside in extreme cold, you can take a few precautions to prevent frostbite.
Dress in Layers
Clothing is extremely important for preventing frostbite, and the best way to dress is in layers. This means having multiple differnet layers of clothing that you can take off and put back on as you need to.
Wear a loose pair of long underwear under your clothes. Long underwear will keep your core dry and warm. Be sure that the long underwear is made of a breathable and wicking material. This will prevent sweat from sticking to your body, and potentially making cold conditions feel even worse.
Wear a hat that covers your ears. Your ears are very susceptible to frostbite, since they are not as close to the rest of your body. A hat will also protect your hair from freezing, which can cause your hair to break if it has any moisture within it.
A scarf is going to be essential for a couple of reasons. Besides keeping your neck warm, a scarf can be great for covering your mouth if the air is too cold. In the event that temperatures drop to a dangerously low level, extreme cold can actually damage the lungs. Using a scarf to help keep the inhaled air warm can help prevent that damage from occurring. A big enough scarf can also be used as a blanket in a time of need.
Boots are very important. Besides keeping your feet warm, a good pair of boots will be able to provide a few more benefits. First, boots will keep water away from your feet and toes. As mentioned before, wet clothes freeze faster, so having a garment that is waterproof is incredibly important. Boots can also help keep your feet from the cold ground. The thicker the sole, the better the insulation from heat will be.
Only wear steel toe boots if the toe is insulated. The insulation will help keep your toes warm, but if the toe isn’t insulated, the steel will actually do more harm than good. Try to find and pick a pair of boots that are made of rubber or a different non-metal material. Also pick a pair of boots that will keep rain or water out. This will prevent your socks from being wet, which could really threaten your feet and toes.
Socks are very important in keeping your feet and toes warm. Pick a pair of socks that will be warm enough to prevent your feet and toes from getting cold, but not so thick that they will cause your feet to sweat. Ideally, find a pair of socks that will wick away moisture while containing heat. You can wear an additional pair of socks over the wicking socks to add an extra layer of protection.
Find a heavy and insulating coat. Ideally, you will have a coat that is a bit big to allow other layers to stay loose. This will help prevent sweating and create an environment where the skin can breathe. Use a coat that has a hood and has multiple closures. A hood can provide insulation for the heat generated by the hat and scarf, while also providing additional wind protection. Having a coat with multiple closures ensures insulation of heat. Pick a coat that has zippers and snaps to trap heat.
Regardless of preference, mittens are better than gloves when it comes to keeping your hands warm. This is because the fingers and hands are touching, which generates additional heat. Get mittens that are waterproof in order to prevent your fingers and hands from getting wet. When your extremities are wet, they will freeze faster because of the ice that will occur when the water freezes.
Keep Your Extremities Covered
As mentioned before, extremities are more likely to be affected by frostbite. If you get frostbitten, your extremities will be the first things to show signs. Gloves, masks, wool socks, and hats can make a huge difference in protecting fingers, toes, noses, cheeks, and chins.
Choose Clothing With Insulation
Insulation can greatly decrease the likelihood of developing frostbite. This is because insulation will trap and keep heat close to your body. Parkas with fill, though large, can be essential in frostbite prevention.
Remove Layers If You Start Sweating
As soon as clothes get wet from either sweat or rain, they are no longer helpful when it comes to preventing frostbite. This is because the water will become ice, which will bring even colder temperatures to the body. When you start to sweat, take off your outermost layer to let yourself cool down. You can put the layer back on once you’ve stopped sweating.
Limit Time Spent Outdoors
While being outside for an extended period of time might be necessary in come cases, it is important to take breaks as needed. If possible, go back inside to reheat periodically in order to prevent frostbite. Also, go indoors if it begins to rain. This can also prevent frostbite.
How to Identify Frostbite
Most people can recognize that numbing feeling that is associated with frostbite. However, there are a few stages to frostbite that each come with their own set of symptoms and treatment. From color of the skin to types of sensations, there are big differences between the three types of frostbite.
Early Stage: Frostnip
This is the most mild form of frostbite. This might feel like what happens when a leg goes numb and begins to tingle. When a person’s fingers or toes suddenly become so cold that they no longer have any sensation, they are experiencing frostnip. From the outside, the skin will appear red—a bit like sunburn. It also may have a waxy or oily sheen to it. This a sign of drying and freezing.
Intermediate Stage: Superficial Frostbite
This stage of frostbite is moderate. More than just frostnip, superficial frostbite occurs when the once red skin turns white or pale. This loss of color is a sign that blood is rushing away from the area. There is typically a sense of burning or stinging associated, similar to that of a heat-caused burn. Within the next day or two, blisters could occur. This is a sign that the skin has become very involved.
Severe Stage: Deep Frostbite
This is the most damaging and severe form of frostbite. While frostnip and superficial frostbite symptoms are more temporary, deep frostbite will cause permanent damage. The skin will appear bluish-grey, and there will no longer be any sensation at all in the affected area. This is because this type of frostbite actually affects all tissue, including the ones below the skin. This includes, but is not limited to muscles and joints. This can even affect bones in the most severe of conditions. Deep frostbite might actually affect bodily tissues so much that they no longer work. Once the skin rewarms, large blisters appear over the next two days. Eventually, the tissue will die, and become black and hard.
What To Do If You Get Frostbite
While it might seem obvious, frostbite treatment is more than just rewarming the body, especially at the intermediate and severe stages. Keeping the body dry is another necessary measure to ensure frostbite prevention. Beyond frostnip, frostbite requires medical attention to be sure that the affected person can recover. Below are the steps necessary to treat frostbite.
Remove Wet Clothing
Frostbite can become even worse if wet, icy clothes and accessories are allowed to remain in contact with it. Whether the frostbite was caused by a fall into a frozen lake or made worse from a bad snow storm, the sooner these wet clothes are taken off, the better the frostbite conditions will be.
Warm the Frostbitten Area
To prevent the frostbite from escalating and moving into a worse condition, warm the affected area. Warming should be a slow and gradual process because quickly warming the body can shock the person and cause extreme pain. Do not use heating pads or handwarmers. Instead, use lukewarm water or let them sit a moderate distance away from a heating source.
Avoid Rubbing or Breaking Blisters
The best way for a blister to heal is to leave it alone. Picking at it or popping it will potentially infect the area. Besides the threat of infection, blistered areas can become raw and painful once popped. Let them heal on their own.
Go Somewhere Warm
Besides simply a sense of comfort, frostbite-affected people need to be warmed as soon as possible in order to avoid further damage. This can be done by using warm blankets or clothing, sitting by a fire, or even going indoors or in a heated vehicle.
Once the skin goes from red to grey, blue or black, medical attention is necessary. This is because the area is no longer being circulated with blood, which leads to the area beginning the process of dying. While the above measures can do a lot to help the situation, a medical professional can do much more to treat severe frostbite conditions.
Frostbite is an uncomfortable and potentially severe condition. However, there are many ways that people can avoid and prevent it from occurring. If it does happen, remember to get warm and seek medical attention quickly.