Frostbite 101

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What is frostbite:

Cold temperatures can affect the human body in ways that can activate defense mechanisms. In fact, frostbite happens as a result of the body trying to protect itself from the cold. When the body experiences extremely cold weather, the body cuts circulation to extremities (feet, hands, nose, etc.) to protect the vital inner organs of the body. When warmer temperatures are sought out quickly enough, these extremities can eventually freeze.

Frostbite comes in four degrees. The symptoms of each are:
        –First Degree: ice crystals forming on your skin.
        –Second Degree: Skin begins to feel warm, even though it is not yet defrosted.
        –Third degree: Skin turns red, pale or white.
        –Fourth degree: Pain lasts for more than a few hours and skin may develop dark blue or black. See doctor immediately, as gangrene is a real threat.

How to avoid frostbite:

To avoid frostbite, the National Weather Service suggests simply staying indoors when the weather is severely cold. If you have to go outside, be sure to cover every part of your body, including your ears, nose, toes and fingers. 

If you know you have to go outside, there are things you can do to prepare for the cold. For example, keep your skin dry, and drink plenty of fluids beforehand since hydration increases the blood’s volume (which helps prevent frostbite). Avoid caffeine, as it constricts blood vessels, preventing warming of your extremities. Avoid alcohol, as it reduces shivering, which is actually a bodily technique that keeps you warm. And avoid smoking, as smoking shuts off the blood flow to your hands.

Frostbite First Aid:

How you deal with frostbite when it happens is important, as it can directly affect what damage it ultimately does. The National Weather Service suggests:

Until you can get indoors:
        -Don’t rub or massage cold body parts.
        -Put your hands in your armpits.
        -Hold onto another person or animal.
        -Drink warm liquids.
        -Put on extra layers of clothes, blankets, etc.
        -Remove rings, watches, and anything tight.

Once Indoors:
        -Don’t walk on a frostbitten foot. You could cause more damage.
        -Get in a warm, not hot, bath and wrap your face and ears in a moist, warm, not hot, towel.
        -Don’t get near a hot stove or heater or use a heating pad, hot water bottle, or a hair dryer. You may burn yourself before feeling returns.
        -Frostbitten skin will become red and swollen and feel like it’s on fire. You may develop blisters. Don’t break them because it can cause scarring.
        -If you skin turns blue or gray, is very swollen, blistered or feels hard and numb even under the surface, go to a hospital immediately.

NewsChannel 34 is a proud ambassador of Weather Ready Nation, an initiative facilitated by the National Weather Service with the goal of reducing risk and increasing community resilience for extreme events. For more info, visit Weather Ready Nation’s website.

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