Frostbite

WHAT IS FROSTBITE?

Frostbite is the freezing of the skin and/or the tissues under the skin. A person with frostbite on the extremities may also be subject to hypothermia (lowered body temperature). Check for hypothermia and treat those symptoms first.

WHAT DOES FROSTBITE ACTUALLY DO TO THE TISSUES?

The fluids in the body tissues freeze and crystallize. This can cause damage to the blood vessels and result in blood clotting and lack of oxygen to the affected area.

IS FROSTBITE A SERIOUS CONDITION?

It can be. Serious cases of frostbite have been known to kill and damage tissue to the extent that amputation is necessary. The extent of frostbite is best evaluated by a qualified medical professional.

Image of winter clothing

WHAT PARTS OF THE BODY ARE MOST COMMONLY AFFECTED?

The exposed areas and areas with less blood flow such as hands, feet, ears, nose, and face most often suffer frostbite.

WHAT CAUSES FROSTBITE TO OCCUR?

Frostbite is caused by exposure of the body to cold. Several factors can contribute to its development including:

IS IT TRUE THAT FROSTBITE CAN OCCUR IN JUST A FEW MINUTES?

the conditions are bitterly cold and/or with a severe wind-chill factor, exposure of uncovered body parts (for example, the ears) can actually result in frostbite in just minutes.

ARE THERE CERTAIN MEDICAL CONDITIONS THAT MAY PUT A PERSON AT GREATER RISK FOR FROSTBITE?

The elderly and children are particularly susceptible. In addition, persons with circulation problems (such as those with diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, peripheral vascular disease, and Raynaud’s syndrome/phenomenon); history of previous cold injuries; those who ingest particular drugs (such as alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and beta-blockers) are at higher risk. Although there is no medical reason, it seems that persons from southern or tropical climates may also be more at risk.

CAN I PREVENT FROSTBITE?

WHAT ARE THE SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF FROSTBITE?

CAN I TREAT THE FROSTBITE MYSELF?

If you think you may have frostbite, even if it seems like a mild case, it is strongly recommended that you consult a medical professional. The following guidelines will decrease the chance of further injury:

DO

DO NOT

SUMMARY

Frostbite can be a serious, disabling condition. Use your head! Keep safety in mind when traveling in cold weather, during winter sports participation, and when outside during the frigid winter months.

References:

Mayo Clinic website, http://www.mayoclinic.com, search for frostbite
MedlinePlus website, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/, search for frostbite
National Safety Council. Wilderness First Aid: Emergency Care for Remote Locations. Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Canada, 2005.