Fight the Freeze: Prevention and Treatment of Frostbite

Winter athletes run the risk of literally freezing themselves. Learn how to stay warm even in the coldest temperatures and stave off frostbite.

‘Tis the season to be jolly—and cold. Winter sports aficionados—skiers/snowboarders, ice climbers, skaters, dog sledders, even professional snow angel makers1—thrive in the cold, but they also run the risk of exposure-related maladies. One of the most common of these is frostbite, when the body’s tissues literally freeze, due to ice crystals forming in the cells of the skin and/or underlying tissues. Minor cases can affect the skin while more serious cases can cause nerve damage, infection, and complications with muscles and bones2.

Caused by prolonged exposure of the skin and body parts to temperatures lower than that at which tissues freeze, frostbite is characterized by numbness, a waxy or hard feel to the skin, skin discoloration (whitish or grayish yellow), and a tingling or burning sensation3. Frostbite can occur in temperatures above freezing, particularly if the affected area is wet4.

In situations of extreme cold, “your body works to stay alive first, and to stay functioning second.”5 Blood is prioritized to the vital organs, leaving the extremities—fingers, toes, nose, ears, chin—vulnerable to the cold. There are different levels of frostbite. According to the Mayo Clinic6, these levels include frostnip, superficial frostbite, and severe frostbite, while WebMD7 refers to superficial frostbite and deep frostbite. Severe or deep frostbite may manifest with blackening and blistering of the affected areas, can result in tissue death, and may require amputation.

Treatment for frostbite should be done under the supervision of a medical professional, if possible. It involves gently re-warming the affected area with warm—not hot—water. Rubbing the skin or using direct heat such as a heating pad is not recommended. It is also important to administer fluids to the affected individual, as dehydration may have occurred. The re-warming process can be painful, depending on the severity of the case, so pain medication may also be indicated.

If you like to spend time outdoors in the winter, or if you must spend time in the cold to shovel the driveway, walk the dog, or defrost the car, be sure to reduce your likelihood of frostbite. To do so,

  • Stay hydrated.
  • Dress in layers, including multiple pairs of socks and an inner layer on the torso that wicks moisture.
  • Cover body parts most susceptible to the cold.
  • Keep moving.

By following these tips, we can all enjoy our own personal winter wonderlands and still stay healthy!

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