What to Do If You Get Frostbite

Frostbite in winter
So, it, it seems as if the winter weather/wind chill advisories just keep coming, and while this wind chill chart can help you be better prepared if you have to go out into dangerously cold weather, you still need to be watchful for the signs of frostbite.

Frostbite isn’t just a feeling you get when your nose or ears get really cold. It’s an actual injury caused by freezing that results in the loss of feeling and color in affected areas. Most often, the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes are affected, but any exposed area is at risk. Damage can be permanent, and severe cases of frostbite lead amputation.

The Signs of Frostbite

The first signs of the risk frostbite are redness or pain on any area of the skin. If this is happening, the best thing to do is get out of the cold immediately. At the very least, cover up the affected area.

Signs that frostbite may be taking hold are the skin turning white or grayish yellow, skin that feels unusually firm or waxy, or numbness. Remember, any of these things by themselves can indicate frostbite. You should not wait for additional signs after the first.

Many times, the frostbite victim is unaware of the changes. So keep an eye out for your companions as well as yourself when you’re out in the extreme cold.

What to Do If You Have Frostbite

Always seek medical care if you have symptoms of frostbite. First, look out for symptoms of hypothermia, a condition where the body loses heat faster than it can generate more, resulting in a body temperature dropping to dangerously low levels. That’s a much more serious condition. If you suspect hypothermia, go to the emergency room.

If there is no sign of hypothermia and you can’t get immediate medical care, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend you:

  • Get indoors to a warm space as soon as possible
  • Don’t walk on frostbitten feet or toes unless absolutely necessary, since this will increase the damage.
  • Immerse the affected area in warm water. Never use hot water. The temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected areas.
  • You also can warm the affected area using body heat, such as putting your hand in your armpit to warm frostbitten fingers.
  • Never rub the frostbite with snow or massage the affected area “to get the blood flowing.” Either can cause more damage.
  • Don’t use a heating pad, lamp, or the heat from a stove, radiator or fireplace to warm affected areas. They are numb and can be easily burned.

None of these things are substitutes for proper medical care. Hypothermia, particularly, is a medical emergency, and only a qualified health care provider can properly evaluate frostbite.

Learn more about responding to frostbite and hypothermia from the CDC Web site.

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