Frostbite facts you need to know

For good reason, we are advised to avoid prolonged skin exposure during severely cold weather. It is very important to minimize skin exposure when we are out in very cold winter weather, to avoid any possibility of getting frostbite. Well, just what does this term frostbite mean from a medical standpoint?

As you might expect, frostbite will usually affect the smaller and more exposed areas of the body. This would include exposed fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and our chin. When one is out and about in the severe cold, these exposed areas will initially become numb. Because of this numbness, a person who is developing frostbite may not even know it. One should always look for skin redness on these exposed areas, because skin redness is often the first sign of developing frostbite.

Frostbite has several stages, and the first stage of frostbite is called frostnip. With frostnip, a person’s skin will turn red and it will feel very cold. At this point, it is very important to get out of the cold as soon as possible, because continued exposure will likely advance the frostnip to full blown frostbite. With frostnip, one also feels numbness in the affected area of the skin. The treatment for frostnip is to get out of the cold and promptly warm the skin. Fortunately, frostnip does not permanently damage the skin.

If one develops frostnip and does not get out of the cold, it will advance to the second stage of frostbite, known as superficial frostbite. In this second stage, the area of the skin that was previously reddened with frostnip now turns white and pale. This is when true damage to the skin starts to occur. The skin may still feel soft, but now ice crystals may be starting to form in the skin. It is at this point when a person may falsely feel like they are getting better and improving, because the skin may now feel warm.

However, this feeling of skin warmth in superficial frostbite is really a bad sign and a sign that serious skin damage is starting to occur. At this point, it is very important to get out of this severe cold exposure and begin warming the skin. With superficial frostbite, as the skin is being warmed, the skin will likely appear blue or purple as it warms up. With skin warming, the person will also likely feel burning, stinging, and swelling. Frequently, fluid-filled blisters appear within 24 hours after rewarming the skin. Fortunately, the skin eventually heals itself with no serious long-term effects from superficial frostbite.

The most severe and dangerous form of frostbite is known as deep frostbite. This third stage of frostbite is very serious because now the skin and the layers below the skin are all involved. At this point a person may again experience numbness and likely will not be aware of the very serious damage that is occurring to the skin and also to the joints and muscles below. Following this severe deep frostbite, the skin will often turn very dark and after rewarming, the skin tissue cannot recover and essentially dies.

To prevent frostbite, be sure to dress warm and minimize skin exposure to the severely cold temperatures. It is also so very important to protect children from severe cold exposure and possible frostnip or frostbite. The key to initial treatment of frostnip or frostbite is to promptly warm the skin, and seek medical attention for any question of skin damage from frostbite.

Editor’s note: Dr. Jim Surrell, author of “SOS (Stop Only Sugar) Diet,” has his practice at the Digestive Health Clinic at Marquette General Health System. Requests for health topics for this column are encouraged.