COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — “The big thing, obviously, is to prevent frostbite in the first place,” said Dr. Alexis Michopoulos, D.O., a primary care physician for UCHealth Primary Care in Monument. “Stay out of the cold, and if you are in the cold, protect your skin.”
Frostbite occurs when the skin and tissue freezes after being exposed to extreme cold for a prolonged amount of time. Most frostbite injuries occur on the fingers, toes, cheeks, ears and nose. In many cases, the body part affected can be rewarmed to avoid serious injury, but in severe cases, surgery or even amputation may be required.
The elderly, small children, homeless, and those who have peripheral vascular disease or diabetic neuropathy are at most risk for frostbite, Michopoulos said.
Some of the signs and symptoms of frostbite include:
- Shivering: the earliest sign that the body is losing warmth.
- Coldness, numbing, tingling and itching.
- Discoloration of the skin from almost white/yellowish skin to a purplish color. More severe signs include blisters and pain on rewarming.
- Mumbling, stumbling and loss of fine motor skills.
Laura Madsen, RN, burn outreach coordinator for the Burn Center at UCHealth Metro, said dressing warmly, with several thin layers, is a good way to protect against frostbite.
The Burn Center has treated three frostbite cases this year, despite the unseasonably warm weather. Last year, 25 patients came in for treatment, Madsen said.
Health officials say rapid rewarming is the primary treatment. This is ideally done with warm water between 98 and 102 degrees. Michopoulos said it takes about 15 minutes to rewarm, but you have to be careful not to have the water too hot or you’ll end up with a burn.
Here are other tips to consider:
- Avoid drinking alcohol and smoking.
- Be careful when wind accompanies cold weather, as it reduces the time for frostbite to set in.
- Go inside every 30 minutes to warm up if possible.
- If your clothing gets wet, go inside and change to dry clothes immediately.
- Make sure boots and shoes are not tied too tightly.
- Pack your car with a safety kit including socks, mittens, hats, coats and blankets.
- Wear mittens, which provide better protection than gloves.
What’s the best advice to avoid frozen skin? Madsen says to stay inside if possible and limit time spent outside. If you do have to venture outdoors, cover up – any skin exposed is at risk for frostbite.