Seunga (Jasmine) Han, PharmD Student
What is frostbite?
Frostbite, by definition, refers to acute freezing of the tissues caused by temperatures lower than the freezing point of the skin. This freezing leads to ice crystal formation within the skin, causing tissue and even blood vessel damage. It’s important to note that the severity of frostbite is dependent on the length of time the tissue remains frozen, not the temperature of the air itself.
Frostbite most commonly affects the hands, fingers, feet, toes, nose, cheeks, and ears. These affected areas would be hard, pale and numb, regardless of the severity of frostbite.
Frostnip, on the other hand, is a superficial, non-freezing injury, meaning there is no tissue damage involved. Unlike frostbite, the affected skin would look bluish-white. Some may experience loss of sensation as well as numbness and tingling of the skin.
How serious is frostbite?
Depending on the degree of frostbite, the complications may vary, and could include:
- Increased skin sensitivity to heat and cold.
- Tingling and burning sensations that can last for weeks.
- Loss of sensation.
- Changes in skin colour.
- Changes in nail shape.
- Excessive sweating.
How do I prevent frostbite?
As you can see, it’s important to take various measures to reduce the risk of frostbite, especially if you’re from an area that experiences prolonged cold temperatures. Here are some things you can do to prevent frostbite:
- Maintain adequate hydration and nutrition.
- Avoid wearing tight clothing or footwear.
- Avoid going outside when the temperature is below −15°C.
- Dress appropriately (e.g. wear layers, gloves, scarves).
- Choose synthetic fabrics, fleece, silk, or wool (avoid cotton as it retains moisture).
- Use hand and/or foot warmers.
- Know the signs of frostnip, so you can prevent it from progressing into frostbite.
- Avoid applying emollients on the skin as they can increase the risk of frostbite.
What do I do if I have frostbite?
- Move to a warm location as soon as possible. Unless necessary, don’t walk on frostbitten toes or feet.
- Don’t thaw the area if there is any risk of refreezing. Refreezing can worsen tissue damage.
- Remove jewellery or any constrictive clothing around the affected area.
- Don’t rub the area!
- Remove wet clothing once you are in a warm environment.
- Rewarm using blankets. If possible, rewarm by immersing in warm (not hot!) water for 15-30 minutes until the skin feels soft and appears red.
- Elevate the area to reduce swelling.
- Stay hydrated until further care is accessible.
Frostbite can happen to anyone, including you and your loved ones. Knowing the signs of frostbite, preventative measures, and ways to manage frostbite until medical care is available are useful pieces of knowledge to have!
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