FROSTBITE

Millions of Americans will take to the outdoors this winter. The health benefits of winter sports are numerous. The release of endorphins elevate mood and help ward off "cabin fever." Engaging in winter sports burns more calories than equivalent warm weather activites as it takes more energy for the body to maintain its body temperature in colder environments. But exposure to cold temperature, wind and wet weather may lead to freezing of the skin and underlying tissues, a condition called "frostbite."

Frostnip, the mildest form of frostbite, most often affects the face, nose, ears, fingertips and toes. It presents with numbness and a bluish or whitish skin color for a short period of time. After re-warming, normal skin color returns and the numbness resolves. Frostnip does not leave any permanent damage.

Deeper forms of frostbite may turn the skin red and blue. The skin may feel hard and swelling of the affected area often ensues. Fluid filled blisters commonly appear and with more severe cold injury, blisters may fill with blood. Stinging, throbbing, and burning can occur and discomfort with re-warming of the skin is not uncommon.

Full thickness frostbite is a very serious condition as damage to the skin is accompanied by cold injury to underlying muscles, tendons, and bone. This often leads to permanent loss of tissue, nerve damage and infection.

Prevent frostbite. Limit the time spent oudoors in cold, wet or windy conditions. Wear layered clothing as air trapped between the layers act as an insulator against the cold. Wear waterproof and windproof gear to protect against wind, snow and rain. Remove wet clothing as soon as possible. Wear protective headgear that covers the ears and wear mittens (which provide better protection than gloves.) Stay hydrated and eat a healthy meal before going out in the cold. Avoid alcoholic beverages.

All forms of frostbite require medical attention except frostnip, which can usually be treated at home by re-warming frostbitten areas in warm water soaks (99-107 F) for about 20 minutes. Remove any jewelry, especially rings on fingers, that could tighten as swelling develops. Avoid further cold exposure. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication like Advil or Motrin may be beneficial for throbbing or discomfort.

Seek medical attention if:

  • Skin appears white or pale.
  • Numbness or blistering occurs.
  • Pain, swelling or redness of the affected area develops.
  • Fever occurs.
  • Or other new unexplained symptom develops.