Anyone who has ever been exposed to temperatures falling below freezing has taken the risk of developing frostbite. That would include just about everyone that has gone outside in the wintertime. Fear of frostbite is no reason to avoid outdoor activities on cold or even extremely cold days because it can be prevented.
First, you must understand what frostbite is, what serious consequences can result, and in the case of injury, what to do for treatment.
Frostbite is the overexposure of skin and soft tissue to cold, and it can be very serious. The most common areas of frostbite are the extremities such as toes, fingers, ears and nose. With the body's attempt to conserve heat, blood flow is constricted in these areas, allowing more blood flow in the core of the body. With reduced blood flow, the extremities begin to freeze. It starts with the tissues and existing blood thickening, and as the outside temperature continues to drop, blood from the body bypasses these areas, quickening the freezing process. If the tissues are frozen long enough, they will die, and that is when extreme damage is done.
Much like burns, there are several degrees of frostbite. The first degree, frostnip, is the mildest form of cold injury. A tingling sensation is the first indication of frostnip, and then the skin turns white and soft. Frostnip commonly occurs after only a few minutes of exposure to severe cold and wind chill. Immediate warming of the area will result in total recovery without permanent damage except for maybe some redness, burning and blisters.
Following frostnip, with continued exposure to extreme temperatures, is superficial frostbite. This condition begins when the tissue under the skin starts to freeze. The skin will be soft and pliable to the touch but will appear waxy, white and bloodless, and numb in feeling. Superficial frostbite, within days after exposure, will result in large blisters that will turn to black scar tissue and take weeks to be replaced by new skin.
When the skin freezes solid, a serious condition occurs called deep frostbite. With deep frostbite, the area of exposure turns deep red or purple, looses feeling, and becomes cold to the touch. Blood vessels, nerves, muscles, tendons and even bone can be permanently damaged resulting in blood clots and the death and decay of body tissues. This condition is rare to the average outdoorsman and occurs most frequently in higher elevations during extreme conditions.
In the event of severe frostbite, you should always consult your family doctor or an emergency room for prompt treatment; however, the following guidelines are provided for a general understanding of the treatments that are commonly provided and advised by medical professionals.
Warm the overall body temperature.
Bring the frostbite victim indoors and warm the entire body before proceeding with warming the affected area. Next, remove wet clothes and cover the victim's body with blankets or warm towels. A hot beverage will help warm the suffering person and help hydrate the body and increase circulation.
Soak in warm water.
Fill a large container with warm water (no warmer than 104-108 degrees F) to soak the injured body part. If you don't have a thermometer, just make sure the water isn't hot but rather lukewarm. Prevent the limb from touching the sides of the container and from bearing any unnecessary weight. Within 20 minutes, the frostbitten area should flush pink and become sensitive. This soaking technique works well for limbs but in the case of frostbite on the face, a warm washcloth applied to the affected area will suffice.
If water is not available to warm a frostbitten area, body heat, applied through the hands, is effective. Do not attempt to message or rub the affected area. Also, avoid using dry heat, such as a heating pad or electric blanket. The frostbitten area has lost feeling and direct exposure to a heater or open flame could cause burns.
Dry and wrap.
After soaking the affected area, dry completely and wrap with gauze. Placing cotton between fingers and toes will help absorb moisture and prevent infection.
A deep frostbite will feel hard, remain cool to the touch and appear blue or splotchy after warming. It is critical that the victim receives medical attention because most frozen limbs can be saved.
Finally, the best way to treat frostbite is to prevent it.
Cover your head and ears, hands and feet. Materials such as wool and synthetics are the best insulators for staying warm even when wet. Windstopper® products and insulated underwear will stop the wind and help wick moisture. Layering your clothing will not only prevent you from getting cold but it will help you from getting too warm. If you begin to sweat, take off a layer. When we begin to sweat, our bodies try to conserve heat and draw blood away from our extremities. Take extra clothes, such as dry socks and underclothing with you, if you are going to be outside for extended periods of time.
Try to keep dry.
Wet clothing is 20 times less warm than dry clothing and wet skin freezes twice as fast as dry skin. Again, bringing extra dry clothes and avoiding melting snow or water whenever possible, will help keep you warm.
Wearing a waterproof moisturizer on exposed areas will help reduce frostbite. Udder balm and other topical ointments, developed to prevent frostbite, are sold at farm supply stores.
Eat, drink and be warm.
Before you go out, or anytime you can during the day, eat plenty of nutritious food. Foods high in fat convert best into heat and energy.
Hydration is a key factor in keeping you warm so drink even when you are not thirsty. Drinking more liquid leads to a full bladder and it's important to empty your bladder frequently to conserve heat and energy.
Keep active while out in the cold but don't wear yourself out. Once exhausted, your ability to keep warm is greatly reduced.
If you're boozing you're losing.
The consumption of alcohol and cold weather isn't a wise idea. Not only does it impair your judgement but it also dilates your blood vessels near the surface of the skin, further decreasing blood flow to the extremities where frostbite occurs.
If precautionary measures and signs of serious injury are ignored, cold weather can be very hazardous Be smart; dress warm, keep dry, and let someone know where you will be going. Frostbite can be serious if not properly treated. Medical treatment, when available, is the surest way to prevent long-term injury.
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