If you weren’t one of the lucky ones that went on vacation to escape these frigid temperatures over the break, then you know just how cold it’s been in Southern Ontario the last few weeks. But did you know just how damaging these temperatures can be to your health? Frostbite can cause some serious problems, and in this weather it doesn’t take long for it to occur.
What is Frostbite?
It’s important to understand what frostbite is. It’s an injury that occurs when the skin and underlying tissue freezes. It most often occurs on fingers and toes, but it can still occur to skin that is covered by clothing. It is most commonly caused by exposure to cold weather conditions, but can also be the result of direct contact with ice or other frozen objects. With the temperatures lately, frostbite can occur on exposed skin in less than half an hour.
Signs and Stages of Frostbite
Frostbite occurs in various stages, with the signs and symptoms escalating for each. The first and most mild form of frostbite is called frostnip. It is characterized by the skin turning pale or red and becoming very cold to touch. Once the skin begins to warm up, it may be painful and tingle. However, frostnip does not permanently damage the skin at all.
The second stage is called superficial frostbite. It appears as reddened skin that turns white or pale. The skin may remain soft, but some ice crystals may form in the tissue. This causes a burning sensation once the skin begins to warm, and can cause blisters, but if treated properly it does not cause any permanent damage.
The most severe stage is called deep frostbite. At this stage, it is affecting all layers of the skin and the tissue underneath. When this occurs, there is numbness, loss of sensation, and pain or discomfort in the affected area. Joints and muscles may not work, and eventually the affected area turns black and hard as the tissue dies.
How to Prevent Frostbite
There are many different ways that frostbite can be prevented, but the most important thing is to prepare for the conditions. Limit your time spent outdoors in cold and windy weather whenever possible, but if you do need to be outside make sure to bundle up. Wear a hat that covers your ears, and wear mittens instead of gloves. You might not look cool, but at least you’ll stay warm. Also, it turns out that drinking to keep you warm is a myth. The truth is that alcohol makes you lose body heat faster, so maybe switch that beer for a hot chocolate instead. If that still isn’t working for you, try to keep moving. Even something as simple as keeping your feet moving can get your blood flowing and keep you warm.
How to Treat Frostbite
If none of that worked and you still end up with frostbite, there are ways to treat it. The earlier frostbite is spotted, the easier it becomes to treat it. Get inside if possible, but if not then keep your hands close to your body and cover your face and ears. Try to warm the affected area but placing it in warm water for 15 to 30 minutes instead of using a stove or fireplace. If possible, a hot tub is the perfect temperature for warming your skin.
If feeling doesn’t return to the frostbitten area after warming the skin, you’ll need to see a doctor to treat the injury. At this point, the doctor may prescribe drugs for pain or infection. It takes a while to determine exactly how damaged the skin and tissue is, but in some cases the dead or infected tissue will be removed.
It’s the same stuff your parents warned you about when you were younger, but frostbite really can become a serious issue. These Canadian winters can be harsh, so dress accordingly to stay warm this season.