How to prevent frostbite and stay warm this winter
Frostbite is a potentially dangerous medical condition in which the skin and surrounding tissue begin to freeze, which can cause pain and eventual loss of appendages if not adequately treated. Frostbite primarily affects smaller body parts such as fingers and toes, though it can also occur in other parts of the body in extreme cases. During these frigid winter months, outdoor workers are particularly susceptible to developing frostbite due to improper weather protection. While serious, frostbite is highly preventable when proper precautions are taken.
The most effective method of managing frostbite is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Here are some tips to help you avoid frostbite this winter:
- Limit your time outside.
Carefully watch weather forecasts and avoid going outside on particularly chilly days. Generally, when the wind chill is 32F or above, it is safe to spend time outside. Between 13F to 31F, you should take indoor breaks to warm up every 20-30 minutes. Anything lower than that, stay inside and out of the cold as much as possible as frostbite can set in very quickly under those conditions.
- Layer up.
Start with a quality base layer such as thermal underwear. Then, put on several layers of warm clothing such as sweatshirts and fleeces. Remember to choose articles of clothing that are loose-fitting as the air trapped between the layers will act as a powerful insulation. If you live in a particularly chilly climate, invest in a good quality winter jacket that is waterproof and well-insulated.
- Don’t forget your feet!
Choose well-insulated woolen socks and waterproof boots to keep your feet warm whenever you venture out into the snow this winter. Remember that your extremities are particularly at risk for developing frostbite, so it is important to properly cover your hands and feet. A thick hat pulled down over your ears can also help you retain your natural body heat.
The Stages of Frostbite and How to Treat Them
There are three stages of frostbite. The first two, frostnip and superficial frostbite, are not serious and can usually be treated at home. However, deep (severe) frostbite can be dangerous if left untreated.
- Frostnip is the first and least serious type of frostbite. It is so common that most people who live in colder climates have experienced it at least once in their lives. Frostnip can be diagnosed by red and prickling skin. To treat frostnip, simply get out of the cold and gently rewarm the affected area using lukewarm water. Note that the tingling in your skin may continue as the skin warms up. Remember: never rub your frostbite as this can cause damage to the tissue.
- Superficial frostbite is the next type of frostbite. At this stage, the skin will start to sting and swell in affected areas. Paradoxically, the skin may even begin to feel warm. This is a sure sign that the frostbite has started to worsen. The frostbitten person may also notice blistering upon rewarming. To treat superficial frostbite, the skin can be gently rewarmed just like with frostnip, though recovery may take longer. As an additional measure, you may want to apply aloe vera gel to the area several times a day to care for the skin as it heals.
- The last and most critical form of frostbite is deep (severe) frostbite. Symptoms of severe frostbite include:
- Stiff joints/muscles
- Hard and blackened skin
- Excruciating pain upon rewarming
Severe frostbite cannot be treated at home. If you suspect that you have developed severe frostbite, see a doctor as soon as possible. If possible, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes as this can increase damage to your tissue.
While frostbite is a potentially life-altering condition, serious damage can be avoided with the proper gear and treatment plan. Dress warmly and keep time spent outside in winter weather to a minimum. If you suspect that you or someone you know has developed an acute case of frostbite, do not attempt to treat it yourself. Immediately take the afflicted individual to the emergency room.