Temperatures are reaching record lows this week and unfortunately some people are experiencing frost bite, due to these extreme weather conditions. So what is frostbite? It occurs when the flesh freezes due to prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. The most common body parts to experience frostbite are in fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin. In severe cases frostbite can lead to amputation of affected areas.
Most cases of frostbite the skin is only frozen (known as frostnip) but in extreme cases dead tissue goes deeper and must be handled delicately. Frostbite requires careful medical attention to minimize damage and reduce the likelihood of further harm. The following steps will help you determine if you’re frostbit and recommended treatments.
1. Determine if you have frostnip. Frostnip is the mildest and least serious form of frostbite. It can be recognized by painful sensations, darker areas of skin, or red skin. However, the skin should respond normally to pressure without serious numbness and should retain its normal texture.
2. Determine if you have superficial frostbite. Although it may not feel superficial, superficial frostbite is named as such because the damage can be reversed with treatment. This is more serious than frostnip, and can be recognized by numbness, white or grayish-yellow skin, aching or throbbing, and slightly hardened skin.
3. Determine if you have severe frostbite. Severe frostbite is a step up from superficial frostbite, and the most dangerous of the three forms. Severe frostbite can be recognized by gangrene (gray/black dead skin), blisters of the skin, the skin will feel waxy and unusually firm, and a loss of feeling/numbness of the affected area.
4. Begin preliminary treatment. All forms of frostbite should be treated by a medical professional, but you should begin treatment on your own (in route to the doctor) to prevent further damage. All three severities can be treated the same way at home.
Treat the Frostbite:
1. Begin warming up the affected area. As soon as you notice the frostbitten areas on your body (most commonly on the fingers, toes, ears, and nose), you should take steps to warm them up. Tuck fingers/hands into your armpits, and hold dry gloved hands over your face, toes, or other areas of the body to add heat. If you have any on, remove your wet clothes as these will prevent your temperature from rising
2. Take pain medication if necessary. If you’re suffering superficial to severe frostbite, the rewarming process may be painful. To prevent further suffering on your part, take a pain reliever such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. However, do not take aspirin. Follow the bottle instructions for dosage amounts.
3. Rewarm the frostbitten area by submerging it in warm water. Fill a basin or bowl with water in temperatures between 100-105 degrees Fahrenheit (37.5-40.5 degrees Celsius). Do not use temperatures above these, as this could burn the skin and cause blisters.
4. Do not use dry heat such as heaters, fireplaces or heating pads. These heat sources are too difficult to control, and will not supply the sort of gradual heat needed to treat frostbite.
5. Pay attention to the frostbitten areas. As your skin begins to rewarm itself, you should feel tingling and burning sensations. The frostbitten area should turn pink or red and regain a regular texture/feeling. Your skin should not swell or blister; these are signals of further damage that should be treated immediately by a doctor. Additionally, if your skin does not change at all after several minutes in warm water, there may be significant damage that your doctor needs to treat.
6. Apply dry sterile dressing to the affected area. To protect from infection and further risk of cold damage, gently wrap the rewarmed frostbitten areas in sterile cotton and gauze. Don’t apply too much pressure as you wrap, as this could damage your skin further. Dress fingers and toes individually, and use cotton balls or other spacers to keep digits from touching.
7. Prevent further damage. Continue to seek medical attention, but in the process keep from worsening your frostbite. Don’t rub the frostbitten skin, avoid too much movement, and don’t allow the area to be affected by extreme cold again.
8. Get further medical treatment. Depending on the severity of your frostbite, the treatment you receive from your doctor may vary. Hydrotherapy is most common, but in extreme cases surgery is provided. If you suffered from severe frostbite, your doctor may be limited to amputation as a treatment option, but this decision is only made 3-6 weeks after the initial exposure.