Frostbite 101: How to protect your extremities this winter
February 1, 2017
By Katie Coakley
Sponsored by Kaiser Permanente
FRISCO — It's the coldest time of year in Colorado. Though some days are deceptively sunny, the risk of cold-related ailments is at its highest. Frostbite is one of the most prevalent cold-related injuries, especially for those who spend extended amounts of time outside.
"Frostbite is an injury to tissue caused by freezing of the tissue," said Dr. Carol Venable, internal medicine physician at the Kaiser Permanente Frisco medical office. "It occurs from prolonged exposure to cold temperatures."
What does frostbite look like?
While frostbite may seem like something that only happens to arctic explorers or dogsledding mushers, it can happen to just about anyone who is exposed to the cold.
Signs that you have or are developing frostbite are that the body part feels cold and numb, and the skin may be paler than normal or white, Dr. Venable explained.
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The consequences of frostbite can vary and depend on several factors.
"The effects of frostbite range from reversible tissue injury to loss of a body part," Dr. Venable said. "Associated hypothermia can even lead to death."
The degree of injury that occurs depends on several factors, including: the duration and severity of exposure; the ability to rewarm the body part without it refreezing; the body part itself, whether there has been prior tissue injury (such as prior frostbite) and whether the patient has underlying medical problems that already have decreased healing or blood flow to that body part, Dr. Venable explained.
How to deal with frostbite?
If you believe that you have or are developing frostbite, get to a warm environment as soon as possible.
"Frostbite is initially treated with rewarming," Dr. Venable said. "Typically, this is done by immersion of the affected body part in a warm water bath or whirlpool bath set to a specific temperature in a medical office or hospital setting."
However, make sure that you're not going to return to the cold — rewarming the affected area then returning to the cold can cause it to refreeze, creating even more damage.
If the frostbite is severe and the patient reaches the hospital early enough, there are instances where so-called 'clot-busting' medication (called thrombolytics) or medication that dilates blood vessels (called iloprost) can be used, though these uses are off-label, Dr. Venable said.
"If the injury is severe, a surgeon often needs to be consulted to see if the affected tissue needs to be debrided (a process in which dead tissue is removed) or even amputated at some point in the future," Dr. Venable said.
Prevention is best
No one wants to lose a limb, so prevention is always preferable to treatment.
"Prevention of frostbite is obvious but sometimes difficult," Dr. Venable said. "Clearly, avoidance of extended exposure to cold temperatures is key, both by avoiding prolonged time in very cold environments, but also by avoiding having exposed extremities like the nose or ears, which are the most commonly affected body parts."
Wearing warm clothes and waterproof gloves or mittens are critical for keeping body parts covered and warm. Also, avoiding alcohol can be a key component.
"One of the big risk factors for frost bite is intoxication because it can dull a patient's ability to sense that his or her body is becoming too cold," Dr. Venable said.
There are still several months of cold weather ahead, so make sure that you're cognizant of the risks. Bundle up, limit your skin exposure to wind and cold, and stay warm!
For more information on frostbite and how to prevent it, visit kp.org.
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