Winter will be here before you know it which, depending on your perspective, is either a great thing or a terrible thing. Despite the fact that winter sends many people into a sort of hibernation where they only emerge from their modern cave when required to do so, many others actually enjoy getting outdoors during winter. Since winter is on the horizon, let’s talk frostbite.
Everyone has at least heard of frostbite. Many people may have even heard some horror stories of frozen fingers, toes, ears or noses. What exactly is it and who is at risk? New studies are actually shedding new light on winter worry.
Frostbite is a condition that may develop when a person is exposed to cold long enough for skin or other bodily tissue to actually freeze. It is also just as unpleasant as it sounds. It is most often seen in extremities of the body like hands and feet because they are the farthest away from the heart. It is also seen frequently on areas of the body that may be exposed during cold weather like a person’s ears or nose.
Frostbite occurs as a result of the body’s attempt at self-preservation. Similar to the way that the body will vomit stomach contents if it detects that the food is spoiled, blood vessels near the surface of the skin will start to close down in cold weather to protect the body’s core temperature from lowering to a dangerous point. This is good for long-term survival, but bad for the affected bodily tissue that is now at risk of freezing without warm blood flowing through it.
There are four classifications of frostbite that are used my doctors to describe the extent of damage. The classifications range from first degree through fourth degree. First degree is the least damaging and involves only the surface of the skin freezing. Second degree occurs when the skin freezes, but underlying tissue is safe. Third and fourth degree occur when the skin and underlying tissue like muscle, nerves, and blood vessels freeze.
All degrees of frostbite involve varying amounts of pain at the time of the freezing injury. People with all degrees of injury may also experience an increased sensitivity to cold in the areas that were injured.
Everyone is at risk if they are exposed to cold, but some people have a greater risk than others. Because frostbite involves decreased blood circulation, people who have poor circulation are more likely to experience frostbite than people who have good circulation. Diabetes and peripheral neuropathy are two medical conditions that can place people at risk of a freezing injury. Similarly, people who take certain medications or who smoke may be at higher risk.
It has long been thought that people who have had it once were also at increased risk for another freezing injury. A recent study has called this into question though. This study evaluated the skin temperatures of alpine climbers who had previously had frostbite by submersing the skin in cold water for 30 minutes. The climbers who had previously suffered a freezing injury had slightly lower skin temperatures than those who had not had frostbite before, but it was a very slight difference.
Fortunately, there are things that you can do to avoid frostbite while out enjoying the winter wonderland. Some of these tips include keeping all skin covered, being sure to drink and eat enough, staying physically active, using heat packs to warm hands and feet, and wearing warm mittens instead of gloves.