Severe temperatures are hitting most of the country this week, but cold weather is no excuse to sit inside over the long winter months. If you do go outside for some fresh air and exercise, make sure to guard yourself from frostbite. When body tissues are frostbitten, skin cells become damaged—sometimes permanently. Therefore, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) has some suggestions to help keep your skin safe from the cold.
“It takes only minutes for exposed skin to become frostbitten if the temperature falls below 20 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind is blowing at 20 miles per hour or more,” says Taizoon Baxamusa, MD, spokesperson for the AAOS. “Your hands, fingers, feet, toes, and ears are especially susceptible, so you need to take special care protecting them.”
Frostbitten areas may feel numb or hard and frozen, and may appear waxy, white, or grayish. Symptoms such as cold sensitivity, numbness, or chronic pain may last for years after an incident of frostbite; in extreme cases, the frostbitten tissue may be permanently damaged and need to be amputated.
The AAOS offers the following tips to help prevent frostbite:
- Light, loose, layered clothing provides both ventilation and insulation. Top your outfit with a water-repellent (not waterproof) fabric.
- Additionally, check for gaps in your clothing (such as between your glove and sleeve) that might expose bare skin to the cold.
Take special care to protect your head, hands and feet. Substantial heat loss occurs through the scalp, so head coverings are vital.
- Mittens are warmer than gloves, and two pair of socks (wool over lightweight cotton) will help keep your feet warm.
- If you plan on being out in the cold for a prolonged period, do not drink or smoke. Alcohol, caffeine and nicotine leave the skin more prone to thermal injury.
- If you get wet, get inside and remove the wet clothing as quickly as possible.
Check yourself every half-hour or so for signs of frostbite. If your toes, fingers, ears or other body parts feel numb, get inside.
If you do get frostbite, you should seek medical attention. Should you be unable to see a physician immediately, follow these tips to prevent further injury:
- Get to a warm room as soon as possible and call for medical assistance. You can have warm drinks, such as broth or tea.
- Rest the injured areas (avoid walking on frostbitten feet, for example) and elevate them slightly.
- Take off any wet or restrictive clothing.
- Warm the affected area by immersing it in warm (NOT HOT) water for at least 30 to 45 minutes, or until it feels warm and sensation returns. During warming, you may feel severe pain and the injured area may swell and change color.
- Do not do anything that will further injure the frostbitten tissue. Leave blisters intact, and cover them with a sterile or clean cloth until you are seen by a physician.
- Do not rub the area with your hands, with snow, or with anything else.
- Do not start to warm the affected area if there is any chance that it will be exposed to the cold again.
- Do not use dry heat, such as from a heating pad, sunlamp, fire, or radiator, to try to warm the area. Because the skin is numb and will not feel the heat, it can easily be burned.
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