From Our 2008 Archives
Frostbite Treatment and Prevention: FAQ
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An expert offers tips for preventing and treating frostbite.
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD
Dec. 24, 2008 -- Baby it's cold outside, with icy, wintry weather settling in from the Pacific Northwest to New England.
So how do you make sure that when Jack Frost nips at your nose you don't end up with frostbite?
Plan ahead to make sure you're prepared for the winter weather, emergency medicine specialist Thomas Tallman, DO, tells WebMD.
Tallman has seen more than his share of cold-weather injuries as a staff physician at the Cleveland Clinic's Emergency Services Institute and as an on-call doctor at the football games of the Cleveland Browns.
"When you're wet or exposed to high winds, core body temperatures can drop quickly and you can get into trouble pretty fast," he says.
What is frostbite?
Frostbite is literally the freezing of body tissue (usually skin). Fingers, toes, ears, and the nose are the areas most vulnerable to frostbite.
There are three degrees of frostbite, including:
Frostbite is caused by either prolonged exposure to cold temperatures or shorter exposure to very cold temperatures.
What are the symptoms?
Many people with frostnip or frostbite experience numbness. A "pins and needles" sensation, severe pain, itching, and burning are all common when the affected area is warmed and blood starts flowing again.
Skin may look white, grayish-yellow, or even black with severe frostbite, and it may feel hard, waxy, and numb. Blistering is also common.
Who is at risk?
Anyone can end up with frostbite if exposed to frigid conditions for too long. Naturally, those who work outside in the cold or engage in cold-weather sports may be vulnerable if they aren't adequately prepared.
But some people are also more susceptible to extremely cold weather than others, including:
Wearing wet clothes, not wearing enough clothes, and exposure to high winds increase vulnerability.
Even people who think they are prepared for the cold weather may not be, Tallman says. He recalls one Browns game last season which started in the rain and ended in an icy snowstorm.
"Many of the tailgaters got pretty soaked before the game and then when the temperatures dropped they got into trouble," he says.
What are the treatments for frostnip/frostbite?
Get out of the cold and get out of wet clothing as soon as possible and remove all constrictive jewelry and clothing. Then immerse the affected area in warm, but not hot, water.
If water is not available, warm the tissue with body heat. For example, warm your hands by tucking them into your armpits and warm your nose, ears, or face by covering them with dry hands.
"Warm water is the gentlest and safest way to warm frostbitten skin," Tallman says.
Many people with frostbite may also be experiencing hypothermia (body temperature that is too low), which can be deadly. This is why it is so important to seek medical attention immediately.
How can I stay safe?
Extreme cold, high winds, wet clothing, and poor planning all contribute to cold-weather injury.
If you are planning outdoor activities, check weather forecasts frequently and don't ignore warnings about storms and other inclement conditions. Avoid sports activities -- such as hiking or camping in freezing weather -- that are beyond your experience level.
"It is a good idea to keep a cold-weather emergency kit in your car with extra layers of clothing, a blanket, and some of those chemical hand warmers," Tallman says. "It is important to plan ahead and be prepared."
SOURCES: WebMD Medical Reference: "Understanding Frostbite." Thomas Tallman, DO, staff physician, Emergency Services Institute, Cleveland Clinic. WebMD Medical Reference From Healthwise: "Cold Temperature Exposure."
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