Mother Nature and Safety

Can Early Signs of Frostbite Go Undetected?

January 06, 2012

FrostbiteBrrrr…Winter has definitely arrived! I know a lot of you love the cold  weather and all it involves - skiing, hot chocolate, making snowmen with children and of course snuggling with your loved one! But the cold weather can also bring danger. We have all heard stories about those hikers who get lost in a blizzard and die from hypothermia. Many of you think you don’t have to worry about frostbite during the winter because you don’t go hiking or engage in winter sports, and it doesn’t seem to get “too cold” depending upon where you live. The reality, however, is that frostbite is a real concern for all of us during these winter months. I’ve seen many patients who have suffered from frostbite who mistakenly thought it only happens to stranded skiers and folks who live in New England. Don’t make the same mistake!

Frostbite occurs when a body part has tissue damage from exposure to cold weather (or cold water). Don’t let its name fool you – just because its name has the word “bite” doesn’t mean it’s like a “dog bite” or “cat bite.” Frostbite is a medical emergency that if left untreated can result in death of the body tissue and even death itself.

So what are the signs of frostbite?

  • The first sign is usually reddish skin that eventually turns whitish or waxy in color. The skin feels cold and seems to be hard. 
  • Numbness of the area and even sometime itchiness.
  • The affected area often becomes swollen; it looks like it’s getting bigger – this is often pretty noticeable.
  • Blisters start to form when frostbite is becoming severe.
  • Black scabs develop when tissue is already dying – a very bad sign.

How do you protect yourself when the thermostat takes a big drop?

  1. Treat the cold as your enemy and be prepared to do battle! The best initial strategy is to minimize your time outdoors when the weather gets below 32 degrees (0 degrees Celcius for you metric lovers). If you don’t need to be outside for more than 30 minutes, don’t.
  2. Make sure you wear layers of clothing and make sure those layers stay dry. Too often, people fall in the snow and their clothes get wet - or they’re sweating profusely. Dry clothes keep you warm - not wet clothes. And take windy days seriously – those days that talk about “wind chill” are important since wind can make you lose heat more quickly.
  3. Keep in mind that it’s the hands, ears, nose and feet that are most at risk. Knowing that, you will hopefully wear a hat! More than 25 percent of heat is lost through the head. Guys - baseball caps are OK if you have nothing else, but you really need to wear a hat that covers the ears. Gloves are an absolute necessity! Two pairs of socks is a good idea if you’re going to do a lot of walking.
  4. I’ve had patients suffer tissue damage when they go outside “for a smoke” with little outer clothing on because they thought the smoking will generate heat. Wrong! Smoking actually increases heat loss from our body and the nicotine decreases circulation. 

Remember that certain health conditions can make you more at risk for frostbite. This includes diabetes and heart disease because they affect blood flow. Also, peripheral vascular disease and even rheumatoid arthritis add an extra risk. Certain medications such as beta blockers can also put you at risk since they impact blood flow. And being older is riskier when we’re outside in the cold since our bodies do not regulate body temperature as well once we pass age 60.

More on Cold Weather Safety:

Cold Weather Safety

Moisturizing in a Cold Climate

Find the Right Cold Weather Gear

Photo Source: Thinkstock/iStockphoto

John J. Whyte, MD, MPH is the Chief Medical Expert & Vice President for Continuing Medical Education where he develops, designs and delivers health programming.








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