Anyone who grew up skiing, sledding, or shoveling snow in the front yard is all too familiar with the chill in your extremities that slowly turns to pain as you launch more snowballs, one more turn around the rink, or jump forward. the elevator for one more run.
But experiencing frigid discomfort can have lasting consequences if cold digits or facial features deteriorate into hypothermia. In fact, there is a great risk in severe cold of losing parts of fingers, toes, cheeks or nose. Fortunately, there are ways to help prevent that and treat the life-threatening cold injury to this appendage if you or an adventure buddy falls with it.
What is happening to frostbitten fingers
Frostnip, and its less serious cousin, are, in the simplest terms, freezing of skin and tissue – made mostly of water. This usually occurs when they are exposed to temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, although wind chill also plays a significant factor. In a wind chill of -17 degrees, frostbite can occur on exposed skin in less than 30 minutes. The areas most at risk, as mentioned above, are your fingers, toes and facial features such as your cheeks and nose.
Frostbite affects these areas for one reason: circulation. Or rather, lack of it. See, when it’s cold outside, your body’s automatic response is to divert blood from the extremities and to your core where insulation in the form of muscle, fat and organs can keep it from freezing (and where blood is most important to survival) .
But if more blood is heated in your core and less in uninsulated figures, the tissue in those unheated areas is more susceptible to freezing.
And when that tissue begins to freeze, ice crystals begin to form and expand as the water in your skin, cells and blood become solid, explains Darby DeHart, a paramedic and ski patroller at Brighton Resort in Utah. . These crystals will pass through tissues and cells like rough microscopic daggers.
How to recognize frostbite symptoms
Frostbite doesn’t just happen. There will be warning signs and progress signs. Cold extremities are likely to simply hurt and feel cold under your hand, but wearing gloves or slipping a toe warmer into your shoe will ease that discomfort. If left unattended, however, red and sore skin are the first signs of a brewing problem. The affected area may turn yellow or gray and become numb and tingly as cold areas suffer hypothermia.
When that discomfort turns into pain and the skin turns white, waxy, and doesn’t bounce back when pressed or the fingers or toes no longer bend – it’s frostbite and you’ll need to take protective action and seek healing. attention as soon as possible.
[Related: How to stay warm when sleeping in the frigid outdoors]
Ideally, however, you should take preventative measures so that you don’t have to think about diagnosing and treating cold injuries in the first place.
Take steps to prevent frostbite
Your first defense against frostbite is to cover up, especially areas like fingers, toes, and facial features where there is no insulation in the form of fat or muscle. Wear warm gloves and socks, as well as a hat, neck gaiter or balaclava that you can pull over your nose and cheeks, and dress in layers. Seriously, bring more clothes than you think you need.
If the fabric alone is not enough to keep the cold at bay, additional warmth is packed in the form of battery-heated socks and gloves or arm and leg warmers. These can be lifesavers in frigid temperatures and keep susceptible body parts tasty for hours.
Frostbite treatment tips
If a cold injury has progressed to frostnip or frostbite, DeHart says to refresh the affected area as soon as possible, preferably in water heated to between 100 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit — slightly more higher than your normal body temperature. Anything hotter and you could do more damage, so low and slow is the rule. Soak the affected area until it is no longer white and waxy.
But DeHart is adamant that you should only heat a frostbitten area if you are absolutely sure you can keep the area warm. If you’re stuck outside with no heat, perhaps while winter camping or if you’ve been injured while skiing and waiting for help, it’s best to wrap the area to protect it from further exposure, but let it wait cold, DeHart guide.
She explains that this is because when ice crystals perforate tissue, they are not clean and pointed like perfectly cylindrical icicles – they are irregular and misshapen. And if they melt and refreeze, they will do so in a different shape, puncturing tissues in new and terrible ways. This can lead to more damage as frostbite begins to affect the dermal and subcutaneous layers deeper down.
When to seek medical treatment
Whenever you think you have suffered frostbite, go to the hospital as soon as possible. However, it’s important to know that depending on the severity of the injury, healing can be a nail-biting process while you wait to see if you lose some of the injured appendix, DeHart warns. That’s because once damaged tissue is rewarmed, the affected areas may swell and turn purple or black over the next few days or weeks, a sure sign that an amputation is imminent.
It happens because your body notices the microscopic punctures caused by freezing tissue and tries to heal itself by clotting. But that cuts off circulation, often completely, and can lead to the loss of part of the affected area, according to DeHart.
Hospitals are trying to find ways to keep a vessel open for damaged tissue by using clots and fibrinolytic therapy to keep circulation strong and prevent clots from forming, but this treatment is still experimental.
What not to do when you have frostbite
If you do end up frostbitten, there are some things you should not do. If blisters form, do not break or pop them as you may cause more tissue damage. And if your skin turns white and waxy, don’t rub or massage it to warm it up again. Your tissue is fragile at that point, and you could peel the skin off, says DeHart.
Stay safe and warm
Whatever you do, if part of your body starts to hurt from the cold, don’t tough it out or wait to get attention when attention is needed. Especially because if you get frostbite or frostnip once, you are more likely to suffer from it again. Listen to your body, and if the cold is becoming an issue, deal with it immediately. “Preventive medicine is always the best medicine,” says DeHart. Not only could you save your fingers or toes, but you’ll enjoy your time outside more if you’re not in pain or discomfort from the cold.