It’s that time of year again; old man winter is out of hibernation. As the holidays are in full swing we can assume that the ice and snow are just around the corner. If you’re like me (and in this aspect I hope you are) you have already dug out all your boots and scarves in preparation for the winter months. Proper bundling is essential when out in the cold for any amount of time. Frostbite is not something you normally think about, especially when you think you’re only going to be in the cold for a short amount of time, but you never know when that time can be unexpectedly extended.
Kenyan runner, Marko Cheseto, competed for the University of Alaska Anchorage in cross-country and track. Hedisappeared one snowy night while on a run. He was found 3 days after his roommate reported him missing. The paramedics were unable to remove his running shoes because they were frozen to his feet. He suffered from severe frostbite, resulting in amputation of both feet.
At or below freezing temperatures, blood vessels close to the skin start to constrict, or get smaller, in the body’s attempt to preserve core body temperature. In extreme cold, or when the body is exposed to cold for long periods, this protective strategy can reduce blood flow in some areas of the body to dangerously low levels. This can lead to the freezing of the tissues, or frostbite.
There are 4 stages of frostbite ranging from pain with redness to blisters and ulceration. Factors leading to frostbite include extreme cold, inadequate clothing, wet clothes, wind chill, and poor circulation. Poor circulation can be caused by tight clothing or boots, cramped positions, fatigue, certain medications, smoking, alcohol use, or any disease that affect the blood vessels, such as diabetes. Areas most commonly affected include toes, fingers, ears, cheeks, and noses.
If you suspect that you or a loved one is experiencing frostbite, seek professional help immediately. Do NOT rub, massage, or do any other types of movement to the affected area as this can cause further damage. Treatment of frostbite centers on slowing re-warming or thawing out the affected areas. This can be done via passive warming which uses one’s own body heat or room temperature and includes wrapping the area in dry towels or blankets. Active warming includes using the addition of heat, often a water bath. During the thawing process it is important to be monitored closely as changes to core body temperature may also take place and can cause systemic issues such as cardiac arrhythmias or shock. If the affected area is unable to be sufficiently revived, amputation is needed to remove the necrotic (dead) tissue. Following a bout with frostbite it’s possible to experience sensitivity to cold, changes in sensation, pain, arthritis or even bony changes.
As you can see, frostbite can be a life changing problem, but it can also be prevented. Always be sure to dress appropriately for the weather conditions, regardless of how long you will be exposed to the weather- you never know what could happen. Also, it’s smart to keep a winter survival kit in your car in case of car trouble during winter travel.