An often treatable skin condition, frostbite results from prolonged exposure to extremely cold temperatures and is caused by the narrowing of blood vessels as blood is diverted to vital organs and away from the skin. Any part of the body that’s left exposed to the elements while outside in freezing temperatures is susceptible to frostbite, a condition that can develop fairly quickly — sometimes within a matter of minutes.
As the largest organ of the human body, skin is highly responsive to temperature change. Red and sore skin is usually the first visible sign of frostbite. Symptoms vary depending on how far the damage from extreme cold exposure extends within the skin. Initially, there may be itching and burning sensations as nerves react to the sudden temperature change.
Frostbite is primarily caused by extended, unprotected exposure to the cold. Hikers, mountain climbers, skiers, and homeless individuals are more likely to contract frostbite than any other group, since they are often in situations where the cold may become an issue. Geographic locations that experience long winters, excessive snow, and temperatures below freezing are often the root causes of frostbite. A lack of proper clothing, equipment, footwear, and shelter also play a part in most cases of frostbite.
Frostbite is a serious danger when the body’s ability to create or retain heat is damaged. Exposure to water/dampness, malnutrition, and dehydration may speed the process of frostbite and exacerbate the damage. Immobility may also make it easier for frostbite to settle in and spread, as the body is no longer pumping blood through extremities such as the toes and fingers.
Wet clothing should be removed immediately when back indoors. Warm water can be used to slowly re-warm the skin until it returns to its normal color. Exposed skin shouldn’t be temporarily re-warmed and exposed to cold again. Apply a sterile dressing to the affected area and place gauze between fingers or toes to prevent them from touching. In severe cases, skin damage from frostbite can be permanent and may lead to amputation.
Frostbite is often preventable. When outside in cold weather, wear warm clothing and dress in layers. Avoid exposing any areas of skin to extreme cold, even when there are no initial sensations of pain or discomfort. If symptoms don’t go away after warming up or become progressively worse, seek medical attention.
Frostbite can be prevented by avoiding and protecting yourself against the cold. Take shelter during blizzards and extreme temperatures, if possible. During periods of extreme cold, wear layers of dry clothing and sealed boots. Do not overdress, as the body will begin to sweat and dampen socks and mittens, leading to an increased chance of frostbite. If you are hiking or doing physical labor in the cold, change your socks often to prevent dampness from sweat.
Homeless individuals should be offered shelter, dry socks, and durable clothing if the temperatures are forecasted to drop. Warm food and water are also recommended to avoid malnutrition and dehydration. Diabetes will also increase chances of frostbite, so blood sugar must be controlled. Tobacco and alcohol damage the body’s ability to retain heat, so they should be avoided in situations where the person may be exposed to extreme cold.
Protection against snow, ice, cold rain, and below freezing temperatures is the best way to avoid contracting frostbite, and treating affected areas can prevent possible infection.