Frostbite occurs when skin tissue and blood vessels are damaged from exposure to temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius).
It most commonly affects the toes, fingers, earlobes, chin, cheeks and nose - body parts that are often left uncovered in cold temperatures. Frostbite can occur gradually or rapidly.
The speed with which it progresses depends upon how cold or windy the conditions are, and how long you are exposed to those conditions.
Several factors can contribute to the progression of frostbite:
- Length of time a person is exposed to the cold
- Temperature outside
- Force of the wind (wind chill factor)
- Humidity in the air
- Wetness of skin, clothing, shoes and shelter
- Ingestion of alcohol and other drugs
- High altitudes
- Ethnic origin (those from warmer climates will be more susceptible)
Frostbite is recognized to have three stages of progression:
In this stage, the body experiences a ‘pins and needles’ sensation with the skin turning very white and soft. There may also be some throbbing and aching. No blistering occurs. This stage produces no permanent damage and may be reversed by soaking in warm water or blowing on to the affected area.
In this stage, blistering may occur. The skin begins to feel numb, waxy and icy. Ice crystals form in the skin cells and the rest of the skin stays supple.
This is the most serious stage of frostbite. In this stage, blood vessels, muscles, tendons, nerves and bone can become frozen.
No feeling is experienced in the affected area and there is usually no blistering. This stage, in severe cases, can lead to permanent damage because of blood clots and gangrene. Serious infection and loss of limbs frequently occurs after frostbite reaches this stage. However, even with deep frostbite, some frozen limbs may be saved if medical help can be sought quickly.
The prevention of frostbite can be achieved with sensible precautions such as:
Wear Proper Outdoor Clothing
Proper outdoor clothing for winter weather insulates the person from the cold. It is designed to let perspiration evaporate and provides protection against wind, rain and snow.
It is advisable to wear several layers of light, loose clothing that will trap air, yet provide adequate ventilation.
This is better protection than bulky or heavy clothing. Best fabrics for the cold are wool, polyester substitutes and water-repellent materials (not waterproof, which holds in perspiration).
It is well known that most body heat is lost through the head, so hats, hoods, scarves, earmuffs and facemasks are good protection.
Wearing two pairs of socks - wool is best, or cotton socks with a pair of wool on top, will protect the toes. Wear well-fitted boots that are high enough to cover the ankles.
Hand coverings are vital. Mittens are warmer than gloves, but may limit finger mobility so it may be worth wearing lightweight gloves under mittens to ensure protection if it is necessary to take the mittens off to use the fingers.
Ensure that clothing and boots are not tight. Any decrease in blood flow will make it harder to keep the body parts warm and so increases the risk of frostbite.
In a survival situation there are several things you can do to help alleviate some of the symptoms and prevent further problems.
Outdoor treatment is relatively simple. Initially, shelter the victim from the cold and move them to a warmer place. Look for signs of hypothermia (lowered body temperature) and treat accordingly.
All wet clothing should be removed and replaced by dry clothing, if available. Wrapping the areas affected in sterile gauze, if available, is recommended.
However if these are not available, wrapping in any dry material will help protect the wounds. Elevate the frostbitten area.
Rapid re-warming has proven to be the most important treatment method. However, there is some controversy surrounding the re-warming process.
Some people believe that re-warming should occur only after being transported to a medical centre. Others suggest that rapid re-warming should occur in the field, running the risk of possibly refreezing the affected body part.
It is probably best to take your own medical advice on this, as both have their merits. Another treatment should be to place cotton or cut up pieces of clothing between the toes or fingers. DO NOT BURST BLISTERS, as you will increase risk of infection.
When re-warming, the water should be warmed to approximately 104°F (40°C). After warming the water, if you place your hand in the water and immediately have to take it out, it is too hot. At 104 degrees, a person can leave their hand in the water for an extended period of time without feeling pain.
As the area thaws, it is common to experience intense pain and tingling or burning in the affected area.
Frostbite - a Serious Disabling Condition
Frostbite can be a serious, disabling condition that can all too easily lead to further and more severe health issues.
Properly designed clothing is an absolute must for anyone who is considering venturing out of doors in a potentially hostile and cold environment.
This clothing must be designed for the conditions. Going to your local clothing shop and asking for something warm is not the answer.
TAKE YOUR HEALTH SERIOUSLY.
Yes they may cost more, but how much are your fingers and toes worth to you?
Remember that as far as frostbite is concerned, prevention is definitely better than cure.