Bitter cold, wind, prime weather for frostbite |

Bitter cold, wind, prime weather for frostbite

SUMMIT COUNTY – With high temperatures reaching only 10 degrees or the teens in the last few days, outdoor enthusiasts have been at an increased risk for frostbite.

This season, Breckenridge Medical Center and Summit Medical Center have each treated one severe case of frostbite, but they’re not out of the woods yet. Last year, Summit Medical Center treated eight people throughout the ski season, and 75 percent were locals.

Frostbite occurs when the skin, the tissues under the skin or both freeze. Fluids in the tissues crystallize, often damaging blood vessels and resulting in blood clotting and a lack of oxygen to the affected area.

Hands, feet, ears, nose and face are most vulnerable to frostbite because they are exposed to cold weather most often.

Several factors contribute to frostbite, including length of exposure, temperature, wind-chill factor, humidity, wetness of clothing, ingestion of alcohol and other drugs (such as nicotine and beta-blockers) and high altitudes. Even wearing earrings increases susceptibility because the metal draws in heat, decreasing the temperature of the ear. Uncovered body parts can become frostbitten in a few minutes if the wind chill is high.

“The under-10-degree mark is going to be a lot higher susceptibility to the frostbite,” said Karie McDonald, clinic coordinator at Breckenridge Medical Center. “The upper teens to 20s are not too bad, unless there’s a horrible wind chill associated with it. It’s different for everyone what they can tolerate.”

Children have a greater risk of frostbite because they lose heat from their skin more rapidly than adults and may be reluctant to go inside and warm up. Other populations at risk include the elderly or people with circulation problems, people with recent injuries or blood loss or people with a history of frostbite.

Mild frostbite, or frostnip, is a superficial freezing of the outer skin layers, which appears as a blanching or whitening of skin.

“It’s like a burn,” McDonald said. “It may turn white. It may peel or hurt like sunburn and last a couple of days.”

Frostnip can be treated safely by gradually warming the area in tepid water or warm compresses or blankets.

Frostbite penetrates deeper into the skin. First-degree frostbite is a partial skin freeze associated with stinging, burning, throbbing and redness, without blisters, akin to a bad burn, McDonald said. Second degree freezes the full thickness of the skin and causes substantial swelling, redness and blistering. Third degree penetrates into tissue beneath the skin, causing blood blisters and skin discoloration (blue, gray or black). Fourth degree is the worst form of frostbite because it freezes muscles, tendons and sometimes bones. The skin eventually becomes dry and black, and generally the area must be amputated.

“Most patients can manage (less severe) frostbite at home,” said Julie Zangari, Summit Medical Center emergency department supervisor. “We tend to see them when the pain and swelling and blistering is so bad that they need pain control or possible antibiotics for a secondary kind of infection.”

“(Seek medical attention) when you have any pain, burning or discoloration that lasts a half hour or more,” McDonald said.

The Breckenridge Medical Center usually evaluates about 20 patients each ski season for frostbite, and most have frostnip, McDonald said. Kris Randall, a paramedic at Peak 8 First Aid Station at Breckenridge Ski Area sees an average of one snowrider a month for frostbite, she said.


Preventing frostbite:

– Wear several layers of light, loose clothing such as wool, polyester and water-repellent clothing that traps air yet provides adequate ventilation

– Cover exposed skin with face masks, scarves, neck gators, hats and so on

– Wear mittens, which are warmer than gloves

– Be sure clothing and boots are not tight. A decrease in blood flow makes it harder to keep body parts warm and increases the risk of frostbite.

– When in frostbite-causing conditions, dress appropriately, stay near adequate shelter, avoid alcohol and tobacco and avoid remaining in the same position for long periods.


Dos and don’ts for treating frostbite:


– Get to a warm place and stay warm

– Rest injured areas (avoid walking on frostbitten feet)

– Use 100 degree water that’s warm to the touch, not hot, for 30 to 45 minutes until flush has returned to the entire area

– Leave any blisters intact

– Elevate the area above the level of the heart

– Seek medical attention if pain, burning or discoloration lasts longer than a half hour


– Thaw then refreeze the injury

– Use dry heat (sunlamp, radiator, heating pad) or cold (melted ice, snow)

– Use alcohol, nicotine or other drugs that may affect blood flow

– Rub the area

Source: “National Safety Council First Aid and Emergency Care Workbook,” Alton L. Thygerson, Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Inc., 1987.


Kimberly Nicoletti can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 245 or by e-mail at

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