Frostbite Causes and treatment
Frostbite refers to the freezing of body tissue (usually skin) that results when the blood vessels contract, reducing blood flow and oxygen to the affected body parts. Normal sensation is lost, and color changes also occur in these tissues.
Frostbite is most likely to affect body parts that are farther away from the body core and, therefore, have less blood flow. These include your feet, toes, hands, fingers, nose, and ears.
What Causes Frostbite?
Frostbite is usually caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, particularly if they are accompanied by a low wind-chill factor. It may also occur following more brief exposure to very cold temperatures.
Usually your blood carries oxygen to all parts of your body so that your body tissues are kept healthy. As a protective response, when your body is exposed to extreme cold, blood vessels narrow (constrict) so that blood (and oxygen) are diverted away from your extremities to your vital organs to keep your body alive. After some time, this lack of blood supply and oxygen to the skin can start to cause damage to the cells.
What are the symptoms of frostbite?
Frostbite can cause feelings of cold and firmness in the affected area, such as the fingers or toes. Stinging, burning and numbness can also occur. You may experience pain, throbbing, burning or an electric current-like sensation when the affected area is re-warmed.
Who is at risk of frostbite?
The very young and very old whose bodies are less able to regulate their body temperature
People with blood vessel damage or circulation problems, such as diabetes and Raynaud’s phenomenon
People taking medicines that constrict the blood vessels
Those who take part in winter sports and high altitude sports, such mountaineers and skiers
People stranded in extreme cold weather conditions
People with jobs that mean they are outdoors in harsh conditions for a long period of time, such as soldiers
Sailors and rescue workers
How Is Frostbite Diagnosed?
Frostbite is initially diagnosed based on symptoms and a physical exam. Various imaging techniques may be used to determine the severity of tissue damage three to five days after re-warming. After one to three weeks, imaging may also be used to help evaluate the condition of any potentially damaged blood vessels and to identify severely frostbitten areas that may need to be amputated.
What Are the Treatments for Frostbite?
Most people recover completely from frostbite, though the affected area may be more susceptible in the future to discomfort from cold weather, repeat frostbite, and damage from the sun. The first goal of treatment is to re-warm the affected area.
Frostnip can be treated at home. If you think you may have frostnip, get out of the cold as soon as possible. If your clothes are wet, change into dry clothing. Immerse the affected area in warm water (100º to 105º Fahrenheit) to thaw the frozen tissue. Do not use hotter water as this may burn your skin. If warm water is not available, use your own body heat by, for instance tuck your hands into your armpits or cover your nose, ears, or face with dry hands.
CAUTION: Do not rub the affected area because this may increase damage to the tissue. Do not use a heating pad, heat lamp, stove, fireplace, or radiator to rewarm the affected area. These methods may warm your skin unevenly or may burn your skin, particularly if it’s numb and you cannot tell how hot the skin is getting.
Frostbite requires emergency medical care. If you think you may have frostbite, get out of the cold as soon as possible. If you cannot get medical help immediately and there’s no risk that the area might be re-frozen before you get help, warm the affected area as you would for frostnip.