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Published on January 07, 2014

Limit Time Outdoors, Exposure of Skin to Avoid Frostbite

As temperatures plummet even lower, physicians at MidMichigan Health warn that frostbite can be a concern. Already, outdoor enthusiasts are beginning to feel the effects of frostbite.

Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing. Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and among people who are not dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures.

“The best measure to prevent frostbite is to limit exposure of the skin to extremely cold temperatures,” said J.T Pinney, M.D., family medicine and sports physician with WellSport at MidMichigan Health. “When spending time outdoors in temperatures under 32 degrees, especially when windchill is also a factor, prepare by wearing wool-lined mittens with waterproof outer layers and a face-shielding scarf to protect the face.”

At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin area, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin as frostbite may be starting. Any of the following signs may indicate frostbite, including: a white or grayish-yellow skin area, skin that feels unusually firm or waxy, and numbness. People are often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because the frozen tissues are numb.

If you detect symptoms of frostbite, seek medical care. If immediate medical care is not available, the United States Centers for Disease Control recommends the following:

  • Get into a warm room as soon as possible.
  • Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes—this increases the damage.
  • Immerse the affected area in warm—not hot—water (the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body).
  • If water is not available, you can warm the affected area using body heat. For example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers.
  • Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it at all. This can cause more damage.
  • Don’t use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can be easily burned.

These procedures are not substitutes for proper medical care. It is a good idea to take a first aid and emergency resuscitation (CPR) course to prepare for cold-weather health problems. Knowing what to do is an important part of protecting your health and the health of others.

Taking preventive action is your best defense against having to deal with extreme cold-weather conditions. By preparing your home and car in advance for winter emergencies, and by observing safety precautions during times of extremely cold weather, you can reduce the risk of weather-related health problems.