Preventing and Treating Frostbite
Winter conjures thoughts of sunshine and warmth, and a flimsy, comfortable wardrobe offering serious risks of sunburn. Oh wait, that’s only if you live in Rio de Janeiro. For much of the world, especially much of the United States, winter is a formidable foe bringing darkness, coldness and its own set of health issues. Aside from navigating your way through flu shots and vitamin C, there is frostbite to deal with, too. Learn the easy way, from me, how to prevent and treat frostbite, before that massive snowstorm hits.
What is Frostbite?
Frostbite is when the water content of the body’s tissues freezes within the skin and destroys the cells. The most commonly affected body parts are those exposed the most- the arms, legs, face, ears, hands and feet. Depending on the degree of cellular damage frostbite can be slight and only affect superficial layers of skin, or can be much deeper causing more pain and complications.
How Does Frostbite Occur?
The body’s natural response to intensely cold temperatures is to survive even if it incurs damage to parts of the body. The body re-directs as much warm blood as possible to the internal organs. This leaves the extremities with decreased circulation and in turn, decreased warmth. The fluids within the cells begin to leak into the spaces outside the cells and freezes there leaving a dehydrated and damaged cell. As this continues to occur the level of frostbite spreads. Once the body returns to a warmer environment the body adapts again, this time returning blood flow back to the cold extremities. In normal circumstances this is helpful as it warms those parts. But once frostbite has begun to damage cells, the returning blood starts to leak out of those damaged cells causing localized clotting and inflammation.
How Can You Prevent Frostbite?
The most obvious answers are move to a tropical island or stay inside all winter. If these don’t work for you, then consider some more realistic options for preventing frostbite when you must deal with cold weather.
1. Check the forecast
Stuff happens and if you aren’t aware of approaching weather, you could find yourself in a dangerous situation. Before heading out on any trip of even a short duration, make it a point to check the weather so you can adapt your plans if need be.
2. Plan ahead
Just like the Boy Scouts, you must be prepared. During winter months it ca literally be a lifesaver to have extra blankets, socks, gloves and coats in your car. Pack an emergency bag with these clothing items and hand warmers, matches and flares. You will save yourself more than a bout of frostbite if you plan ahead.
3. Dress in layers
The shining sun on a winter afternoon can be very misleading and very fleeting. When venturing out, dress in layers so that you can appropriately respond to changing temperatures. The new workout textiles are wonderful for heat conservation, are light weight and comfortable are great layering pieces to keep you warm.
4. Avoid exposure
Exposure is the greatest risk factor so bundle up with gloves, scarves, ski masks and anything else to keep vulnerable skin covered. This will not only prevent frostbite but can prevent windburn and sunburn as well.
5. Keep dry
Wear waterproof shoes and clothing if possible to prevent skin exposure to freezing water. This will speed the advancement of frostbite and is difficult to remedy until dry attire can be procured.
I Have Frosbite! How Do I Treat It?
Treatment for frostbite seems simple- just warm it back up. But in fact treatment can be tricky. Since the damage is done within the tissue it can be hard to figure out how severe the frostbite is.
If you are confident that the frostbite is minor you can usually treat it on your own. Begin in a warm area and removed and cold, wet or constrictive clothing. Give the person warm, non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated fluids. This is important because caffeine can constrict vessels and cause the situation to worsen. Since the amount of damage is related to how long tissue remains frozen, it is important to rewarm the tissue quickly, not gradually. Using a warm water bath is recommended as is an appropriate dose of over the counter pain medication as this process can be uncomfortable.
If you have some doubt as to the degree of frostbite, or if there are symptoms of hypothermia or other serious medical conditions, it is recommended that you seek professional emergency treatment right away. A physician can best evaluate the situation, and prescribe and oversee the most effective treatment. Rewarming in a water bath will likely be the priority, with after care such as wound debridement and pain management being key factors as well. Physicians can also best determine when amputation should be considered.
As pretty as the freshly fallen snow is, the cold weather undoubtedly offers its share of inconveniences, with frostbite being one of them. Knowing how it occurs, how to prevent it and how to treat it will keep you and your family safe and sounds through the winter months.
Frostbite. http://www.emedicinehealth.com/frostbite/article_em.htm. Accessed November 9, 2010.