Winter is a time for fun in the snow, trips to the skating pond, building a snowman, and it is also the time for outdoor work in the cold shoveling snow and fighting the ice. Of all the fun and the work involved in the winter chill, there is one underlying risk involved with it all- frostbite. Frostbite occurs when the tissues of the skin freeze. The exposure to the cold causes damage to the cell of the skin and underlying tissue and when it is severe enough, the damage can be extensive and devastating. Understanding the dangers of frostbite and knowing how to guard against it can go a long way in keeping you and your family safe this winter. Many people are concerned with taking care of their skin during the bitter cold and that is important because knowing proper frostbite care and treatment will go a long way in keeping you safe.
Ice Crystals Forming in Skin Cells
When the body gets cold for prolonged periods of time, the body starts to compensate and tries to keep itself warm. The first way it will do this is to draw blood towards the vital organs in your core. This means there is less blood in the extremities. If exposure is prolonged, less and less blood will be in your fingers and toes as well as your hands and feet; ice will start to form in the fluid of your skin cells and these crystals prevent the flow of nutrients, oxygen, and blood to those areas. Severe cold for prolonged periods of time can lead to the death of the cells and the tissues in the affected area. This is known as frostbite.
Symptoms of Frostbite
Knowing the dangers of frostbite is important but it is also important to recognize the symptoms of the condition so proper frostbite care and treatment can be given. Symptoms of having frostbitten skin may include:
- Skin that is cold, pale, and firm
- Pain, stinging, throbbing
- Itching and peeling of the skin
- Loss of feeling in the affected area
- Mottled, blotchy, and dry skin
- Swelling, rashes, and blistering
- Skin becomes red and painful when warmed
- Necrosis of the affected skin areas
- Tissue loss, depending on the severity of the frostbite.
Severe Frostbite Cases
When frostbite hits a severe level, blisters will form on the skin- and this can be a major indication of how bad the damage will be. If the fluid is clear in the blisters, then the skin will likely recover if the cold damage is stopped- but when the fluid is bloody then the damage is often severe and the damage to the tissue may be too severe and may be permanent. Typically, when the frostbite moves beyond the bloody and blistered stage, the affected skin becomes hard and black. This is called dry gangrene as the skin is actually rotting away when though it cold and dry. Wet gangrene, the more common type of rot, can also occur if the skin gets wet while it is cold. Gangrenous skin may rot to the point it falls away, but in some cases, parts of the affected area have to be amputated to prevent the gangrene from spreading. This is the ultimate risk of frostbite- lost of fingers, toes, and other body parts.
First Aid for Frostbite
Now that we know the dangers of frostbite, it is time to look at frostbite care and treatment to protect your skin from further damage. First aid for frostbite includes:
- Reduce exposure to cold and damp conditions.
- Find shelter and stay as warm as possible.
- Remove any wet or restrictive clothing and wear dry clothes.
- Keep the entire body warm to reduce blood restriction.
- Never rub frostbitten areas as that can tear off the damaged skin.
- Do not expose to direct heat such as a fire or heating pads.
- Reduce damage by not putting pressure on the damaged area.
- No tobacco as it can affect blood vessels and body temperature.
- Do not warm if there is a risk of refreezing as this causes further damage.
- Do not break blisters and do not try to remove the skin as the risk of infection is high.
Thawing the Affected Area
Most of the damage is made worse when one tries to warm up the damaged skin and does so incorrectly. This is one of the dangers of frostbite that many people are not aware of. To thaw an area affected by frostbite you need to do the following:
- Gently lay warm towels over the area
- Soak in warm circulating water
- Never use hot water, only warmer water
- Never rub skin that has been frostbitten
- Once thawed, keep skin clean and dry and warm
- Avoid skin exposure to cold or wind
- Seek professional help as soon as possible
Treatment Options for Winter Frostbite
Cases frostbite have to be treated in hospital. Treatments include:
- Slowly warming the frostbitten area
- Testing the blood circulation to check how it returns to the affected area
- Medications, IV liquids, and antibiotics to prevent infection
- Tetanus shot if skin lesions are severe
- Keeping extremities sterile and dry and clean
- Rehydration to restored and maintain good blood flow
- Highly nutritious foods that help restore cell growth and regeneration
- Eventual surgery may be needed to remove the dead and damaged skin
Even with the best medical care, severe frostbite can have serious and permanent effects that the individual will have to live with. When one knowns the dangers of frostbite it is obvious that great care is needed when it comes to frostbite care and treatment. Long-term damage can sometimes be unavoidable. The damage may include things like:
- Numbness in the skin that was damaged
- Sensitivity to temperature extremes
- Problems with hair and nail growth long-term
- Loss of tissue or entire body parts
- Discoloration of the damaged skin
- Joint damage and stiffness if joints are affected
Simple ways to prevent frostbite include:
- Avoid being out in the cold for long periods of time
- Dress appropriately for the winter weather
- Multiple layers of clothes keep body heat better than one layer
- Wear outer waterproof layers to keep the body dry
- Use hats, gloves, scarves, and socks
- If at all possible keep changes of dry clothes with you
- Invest in a pair of quality waterproof and insulated boots
- Conserve body heat as much as possible
- Stay well hydrated and well fed so the body can heal itself
- Carry a thermometer so you can monitor current temperatures
- Immediately change out of wet clothes
- Avoid stimulants and depressives such as alcohol, cigarettes, and caffeine
- Check for signs of frostbite often
Stay Safe This Winter
Now that you are aware of the dangers of frostbite and how to detect the signs that you may be at risk for developing frostbite, you will be better prepared for this winter and will be better prepared to protect yourself. We have so much to think about when we spend time out in the cold- and taking care of our skin has to be on the top of the list. Frostbite can happen quickly and can go from a minor case to a severe case in a matter of hours. So, planning and preparing are essential and knowing what to do and what not to do can help keep you safe! If you have any questions about frostbite care and treatment or general skin care, this winter, contact us today at Kouris M.D. Cosmetic Plastic Surgery-we are here to help!