A Guide to Understanding Frost Bite Better

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Frosbite is an injury that occurs when parts of the body are being overexposed to the cold specifically below zero degrees. The cool temperature causes freezing of the skin and its underlying tissues. The toes, fingers, and feet are the most commonly affected areas. Other parts of the body such as the cheeks, ears, and nose can also develop frostbite.

The Causes of Frostbite

Obviously, our blood carries oxygen to all parts of our body to keep our tissues healthy. Now, when our body is exposed to extreme cold, its natural response is to narrow or constrict the blood vessels so that the blood and the oxygen are sidetracked away from your extremities to your vital organs. This is the body’s way to keep you alive. However, if exposure to cold is prolonged further, the lack of blood and oxygen supply to the skin causes cell damage.

Let’s take the foot being affected by frostbite. Ice crystals form on the foot and cells and tissues start to be damaged. Likewise, blood clots in the blood vessels can also occur, restricting the blood and oxygen flow even more. Chances of frostbite increase the longer you stay in a cool place especially if accompanied by wind (causing wind chills) or if in places of high altitude (in the case of mountain climbers).

Who Commonly Gets Frostbite

Frostbite can affect anyone who exposes himself to extreme cold particularly if he isn’t wearing protective clothing. People with diabetes and health conditions that cause narrowing of the arteries are also at higher risks for developing frostbite.

Taking medications with beta-blockers that constrict the blood vessels also increases the likelihood of getting frostbite easily.

Other candidates for incurring frostbite are:

  • Smokers
  • Those who work outdoors in the cold
  • Soldiers
  • Winter skiers
  • Winter climbers
  • Homeless people

Various Degrees of Frostbite

  • First-degree frostbite ‚Äì only affects the epidermis or the outer layer of the skin.
  • Second-degree frostbite ‚Äì affects the epidermis along with some parts of the dermis.
  • Third-degree frostbite ‚Äì affects the epidermis, dermis, and fatty tissues beneath the dermis.
  • Fourth-degree frostbite ‚Äì the most severe case of frostbite which affects all the layers of the skin, the tissues beneath the skin and deeper structures including the muscles, bones, and tendon.

It is important to use these different degrees of frostbite to identify how much damage it has done to the foot. In general, two terms are only used to describe the severity of frostbite – superficial frostbite and deep frostbite. Superficial frostbite corresponds to the first and second-degree frostbite, which means that little or no tissue is lost. Deep frostbite, on the other hand, refers to third and fourth-degree frostbite, which suggest that there is a great amount of tissue lost.

Diagnosing Frostbite

Frostbite on the foot can easily be diagnosed by conducting a physical exam and checking for symptoms. To determine the severity of tissue damage caused by frostbite, there are lots of various imaging techniques that can be used 3-5 days after de-warming.

One to three weeks more, further imaging can also be considered to evaluate potentially damaged blood vessels and identify severely frostbitten areas that may require amputation.

First-Aid Measures for Frostbite

While waiting for medical attention, especially in cases of catching frostbite while in remote location (i.e. during skiing or climbing), first-aid measures can be applied but this is only limited to superficial or mild frostbite.

Check for signs of hypothermia

Signs and symptoms of hypothermia include slurred speech, drowsiness, loss of coordination, and intense shivering.

Cover the affected area from further exposure

If your one or both of your feet is frostbitten, cover it with dry cloth to prevent further tissue damage.

Stay away from the cold

If there’s a covered place close to where you are, get in there.

Re-warm frostbitten areas gently

You should do this gently or else you’ll be in pain and you can damage the affected area even more. Soak the frostbitten area to warm water for 15-30 minutes, approximately 98 – 108 F or 38 – 42 C. If a thermometer isn’t handy, test the water with your unaffected hand. It should only feel warm and not hot.

Don’t thaw affected areas if there is a great chance of having them frozen again

Once the frostbitten foot is already thawed, make sure to wrap it up so it   doesn’t re-freeze.

Take pain medication

Over-the-counter medicines like Ibuprofen (Mortin IB, Advil, and others) can be taken to reduce inflammation and pain.

Rest your frostbitten foot

Don’t even try walking your frostbitten foot as you will only worsen your condition. As your companion to just carry you indoors or in your tent.

Be aware of what can happen as the skin of the affected area thaws

You have to note that during warming, the skin of your frostbitten foot will turn red and will tingle and feel like burning. This is normal as your foot regulates the blood flow again. However, if blisters start to develop and the numbness doesn’t go away, it is better that you call for emergency medical attention.

Additional Tips to Prevent Frostbite

Since frostbite is primarily caused by exposure to extreme cold, there are several ways you can do to avoid it especially if you’re heading outdoors during winter season.

  • Wear appropriate clothing and do some layering for extra insulation.
  • Use mittens instead of gloves as these give more warmth.
  • Cover your head, neck and face especially if it is windy.
  • Wear waterproof clothing to keep your body dry.
  • Wear warm boots.
  • Increase your fluid and calorie intake during cold weather.
  • Get out of the cold as soon as possible when early signs of frostbite are felt.
  • If you can, just stay at home during winter season. While the cold weather is ideal for winter sports like skiing and climbing, it is best to put your safety first.

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