Frostbite is very serious and can lead to the loss of toes, fingers and noses. Usually, it affects the smallest and most exposed parts of the body, including the cheeks, ears and chin. One of the worrying things about it is that the area will go numb, which means you won’t know that you have frostbite until you look in the mirror or someone points it out.
There are a number of frostbite signs, including:
• An itching or prickly sensation, sometimes slightly painful
• Skin that turns either red or white, pale or has a grey-yellow tinge to it
• Skin that looks waxy and feels hard
• A burning or cold feeling
• Clumsiness because the muscles and joints stiffen
What Is Frostbite?
Frostbite is essentially the formation of ice crystals in the skin or its underlying tissues. Thereby, the skin effectively dies, because it is no longer able to access either blood supply or oxygen. Frostbite causes are usually exposure to extreme periods of cold and it is often found in mountaineers. However, those who do not take adequate precautions to protect themselves from the cold can also experience frostbite. Frostbite prevention is very important, as it can lead to loss of limbs and even life.
There are three main stages to frostbite. The first is frostnip, which is a mild form and the skin will turn red and feel very cold. If exposure continues, the skin will start to prickle and feel numb. The skin later warms up again, which is quite painful and many people experience a tingling sensation. Frostnip is very common and doesn’t actually do any damage. The second stage is superficial or mild frostbite. If the skin is not warmed up, it will start to turn white. The skin is still soft to the touch, but the tissue may already start to form ice crystals. This stage is deceptive, because the skin will actually feel as if it is warm. This is a sure sign that something is seriously wrong. If treated on time, the skin’s surface may actually look slightly blue or purple, as well as mottled, because it literally has to thaw out. It is quite a painful process, and you will feel pain, burning and stinging and your hands will swell. Some 24 to 36 hours later, a large blister may form on the affected area. The last stage is deep or severe frostbite. Here, the layers of the skin and the underlying tissues are affective. The area will feel numb, meaning that you will not feel the cold, the pain or even a slightest bit of discomfort. However, your joints and your muscles may stop working altogether. If treated on time, the area is likely to develop large blisters within the next one or two days. If not treated, the area will turn hard and black, which is a sign that the tissue has died.
If you have frostnip, you can safely treat it at home. You can simply breathe on the affected area to slowly heat it, or you can put the hand in your armpit if that this affected area. Do not use hot water to heat up the area, as this could lead to burns. It is hard to prevent frostnip, although making sure you wear suitable gloves in cold weather is very useful. Also make sure you do not wear any wet clothes, socks or gloves. Usually, the area affected by frostnip will feel warm and flush as it rewarms, which can be quite painful. However, it will heal by itself.
Deep or serious frostbite should always be treated by a medical professional. It is unfortunate when frostbite happens, because it should not be too difficult to prevent frostbite. However, because it can be hard to notice mild frostbite, severe frostbite can creep up on people. It is recommended that superficial frostbite is also treated in hospital, since it is very easy for it to escalate into deep frostbite. Warming the skin up at home can actually harm it even more. Frostbite first aid can be given by wrapping the affected area, but that is almost all that can and should be done until medical professionals arrive. If a frostbitten area thaws and freezes again, which could happen if you are on a snowy mountain and got some help before moving on for instance, can actually harm the tissue even more than it did to start with. Also, the frostbitten tissue usually has to be treated with antibiotics, either topical or oral versions. If the tissue was truly frostbitten, the dead tissue will shed after a few weeks or months. If there is a significant area of dead tissue, it will have to be surgically removed. Sometimes, a bone scan has to be used, so that blood can once again flow to the bone that lies under the tissue. Frostbite recovery can take several months and people may still require amputations at a later stage.