Frostbite - Don't Get Left in the Cold

Jan 28, 2015

By Barret Procyshyn, Pharmacist at the Dauphin Clinic Pharmacy

Manitobans embrace winter, there is no doubt about it! Whether you enjoy spending time of the ice, snowboarding on the slopes, snowmobiling on the trails, cross country skiing in the Riding Mountains or ice fishing on one of our many great fishing lakes; we put our winters to good use. Withgreat weather forecasts or latewe have all the more reason to spend time outdoors. Even with this March like weather, we have had some extreme winds and it can still get quite cold outside. If you are not prepared things can get dangerous.

Even though you may not feel cold when you walk out the door, always consider the risk for frostbite. While we have been warned of frostbite since childhood many may not realize what it is or how quickly it can happen. Frostbite is medically defined as a cold-induced injury, occurring when ice crystals develop in the skin. As the ice crystals develop water is removed from the skins cells, the skin becomes dehydrated and then skin cells become damaged.

The severity of frostbite is directly related to the duration of exposure, the extremity of the cold temperatures and to the length of time the tissue is frozen. As these risk factors increase in severity or duration, more ice crystals formation occurs and more damage is done to the skin. Wind chill and high humidity in the air both increase the risk of injury. While we have been fortunate to have mild winter weather of late, it has seemed to be either quite windy or humid. The hands and feet account for over 90% of frostbite cases, while the ears and face are other common sites.

Frostnip, not to be confused with frostbite, is a pre-freeze condition of the skin when the tissue cools to below10 Celsius and turns a bluish white color. There may be numbness and tingling but there is no tissue damage. This is because the temperature of the skin has not cooled enough for the water in the cells to form ice crystals. In frost bite the frozen skin appears as a waxy-white, greyish or yellowish plaque surrounded by redness. If the hands have been frostbitten, movements may be clumsy or not possible.

There are some important steps to initiate quickly if frostbite has occurred. To prevent further heat loss from then skin, remove wet and tight fitting clothing. Do not rub the affected area as it may cause further skin damage. The area should be warmed by immersing in warm bath water (40-42 Celsius) for 10 -30 minutes. The myth of using a cold object or ice to treat frost bite is simple just a myth. Sterile dressings can be applied to protect the area. Frost bite should always be observed by a health care professional to determine severity.

The necessary process of rewarming the skin will bring throbbing pain, flushing, and redness, should be done as soon as possible. Partial rewarming and refreezing must be avoided as it will worsen the frostbite. Blisters may form within the first 24 hours if the frostbite was somewhat severe. Blisters must always be assessed by a physician. In the most serious injuries tissue loss and amputation occurs within 45 days. Long term effects of any severity of frostbite can include cold sensitivity, loss of sensation, skin color changes and nail deformations.

If blisters form from frostbite, aloe vera can be applied every six hours. Ibuprofen or naproxen, due to their anti-inflammatory effect, is recommended to provide pain relief and it can help prevent further damage to the frozen area. Even though these medications are available over the counter, you should always consult your pharmacist for proper dosing and to make sure these products do not interfere with your health.

Frostbite can be easily prevented. Always pay close attention to the forecast. The best way is to listen to 730 CKDM weather reports for the temperature with the wind-chill. If the outside temperature is -10 Celsius, but it feels like -20; the wind makes it feel like a day when it is -20 Celsius. The higher the wind-chill, the higher the rate your body will lose body heat. Keep in mind that the risk of frostbite increases rapidly when wind chill values go below -27. At wind chills of -28 to -40 exposed skin freezes in 10 to 30 minutes. At wind chills of -40 or lower, skin can freeze in as little as 5 minutes. If you must go out when the wind chills values are significant, dress warmly, stay dry and keep moving!


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