Frostbite can put an unpleasant end to outdoor winter fun. The ears, nose, fingers and toes are especially susceptible to subfreezing temperatures, and the consequences of overexposure can be severe. The good news is that frostbite is easily preventable.
Avoiding exposure is key. “Anybody is at risk if the temperature is below freezing, even just slightly below,” says Dr. Chris Guyer, a sports medicine and emergency room physician at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Mich.
Frostbite occurs when body tissues freeze. If blood vessels are affected, amputation of the affected body part may be necessary.
Knowing the signs of frostbite is one of the best defenses, Guyer says. The initial symptoms include hard, cold, waxy and white areas on exposed skin. “They are very painful initially and then they turn numb,” he says.
“Put frostbitten hands or feet in warm water and wrap or cover other areas in a warm blanket and then seek medical attention immediately,” Guyer says.
Here are some additional tips for preventing frostbite:
- Dress for the weather. If you’re going to be outdoors, dress in thin layers of breathable fabrics. “Choose mittens over gloves because they are less constricting,” Guyer says. Protect your nose by wearing a mask or a scarf. A warm hat that covers your ears also is essential.
- Don’t drink alcohol or smoke. “Avoid alcohol when you are out in the cold because it can impair your ability to feel how cold it really is,” Guyer says. “Smoking can also increase your risk of frostbite because it impedes circulation.”