How to recognize frostbite and when to seek help

Published: February 1, 2019

Person in the outdoors Photo by illustrissima/Shutterstock.com

Nearly 120 soldiers with the Royal Canadian Dragoons participated in basic winter survival training near Petawawa, Ontario, earlier this month. According to a report by CBC News, temperatures dipped to -31 C, leaving around 20 of the soldiers with frostbite and a small number of them in the hospital. One of the soldiers who took part in the training told CBC that they have to be prepared to accept those risks as they train for worst-case scenarios and in the harshest conditions—whether that’s cold or warm weather. But for the rest of us, it’s an important reminder that, sometimes, there’s no such thing as “braving” harsh winter weather. Because if you’re out in cold temperatures long enough, your skin and the underlying tissues can actually freeze. We’ve all heard of frostbite, and know it can be serious, but how many of us know the signs and symptoms of it? Or what to do if we suspect we’re already suffering from it? If you know the answers to these questions, you could save yourself from worry and serious winter injury. 

How to prevent frostbite

Your risk of frostbite can vary according to the wind chill index, which indicates the temperature felt on skin exposed to the cold. Not surprisingly, the colder the temperature, the quicker exposed skin can freeze. In extreme cold weather conditions, preventing yourself from frostbite might simply mean staying indoors. If you do need to go outside, be mindful of the time, wear loose fitting clothing to avoid cutting off circulation, and don’t skimp on winter wear. It’s easy to throw on a pair of mittens and a toque, but you need to consider extra items like a neck warmer and hood to ensure every bit of skin is covered. Staying away from alcohol, which causes the body to lose heat, and smoking, which decreases blood flow to your limbs, are also good ideas.

What to look out for

Frostbite most commonly affects fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chins, because these areas are quickest to lose circulation, or are often left exposed. But according to the Mayo Clinic, frostbite can affect any area of the skin, even those covered by clothing. In general, you should look out for cold, prickling skin, numbness, hard or waxy-looking skin that’s red, white, bluish-white or greyish-yellow. But it’s important to understand that there are varying levels—and severity—of frostbite. Frostnip, for example, is a mild form that may cause numbness and leave the skin looking lighter than normal. Once the skin is warmed it will turn red, and you may experience some pain or tingling, but there should be no permanent damage to the skin. As it progresses, however, your skin will appear pale and white, then mottled when re-warmed, and you may experience stinging, burning or swelling. At this stage, typically known as “mild” or “superficial” frostbite, blisters may also start to form about 12 to 36 hours after the skin is rewarmed. The condition is even more severe, and likely what’s known as “deep” frostbite, if the blisters are filled with blood or cloudy fluid. At this point, it’s reached all layers of the skin, which has likely turn blue-ish, grey or even black as a result of tissue damage.

When to see a doctor

Seek medical help if you’re experiencing blisters or any other signs of superficial or deep frostbite. In the meantime, you can reduce the pain by taking an ibuprofen. If you’re waiting to see a doctor, you should do your best to ensure the affected area is away from the cold, warming it slowly using a compress or your own body heat. According to Ottawa Public Health, it’s also best to avoid rubbing, massaging or walking on the affected areas, as it may cause more damage. And if you suspect you’re suffering from frostbite, public health officials warn that you should also be mindful of the symptoms associated with hypothermia, like slurred speech, drowsiness or loss of coordination.

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