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Frostbite occurs due to prolonged exposure to frigid temperatures, which leads to the constriction of blood vessels, particularly in the areas that remain uncovered, such as the hands, feet, lips, nose, and ears.
Blood carries energy or heat, which is redirected from the extremities to the internal organs so that they remain functional and the core remains warm. However, the areas that don’t get enough blood or heat develop ice crystals over time, leading to freezing of the affected tissue. This is known as frostbite.
In severe cases, the nerves, blood vessels, and muscles may also freeze along with the skin. These crystals hamper the circulation of blood by blocking the capillaries, thus depriving the cells of nutrients and oxygen carried by the blood.
The severity of the damage keeps on increasing as long as the tissue remains frozen. In mild cases, frostbite can be cured with home treatments. Medical help should be taken if the frostbite is severe.
First Aid for Frostbite
Frostbite qualifies as a medical emergency as it can lead to severe complications if not treated immediately and properly, but here are a few things you can do at home if getting to the hospital is delayed for some reason.
- Warm your bathwater to 104–107°F, and soak the frostbitten part in it for about 30 minutes to thaw the frozen tissue until your skin becomes red and soft. (1)
- However, this thawing process can hurt a lot, so you might consider taking non-prescription NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, to dampen the pain. Pain medicine can be used as well to manage frostbite symptoms until you get medical help. People with preexisting heart, gastrointestinal, or kidney problems must consult their doctor before taking any pain medicine.
- Always check the temperature of the water beforehand to make sure it’s not too hot, or else you can end up with burns. You can do so by using a thermometer or dipping an uninjured finger in the water.
- As soon as the water cools down, replace it with fresh warm water to maintain a consistent temperature.
- After the rewarming therapy, wrap the affected areas in clean bandages. The toes and fingers should be separated. Maintain cleanliness to prevent infection.
- If warm water is not readily available, you can gently wrap extra clothes and blankets around the frostbitten area for some much-needed warmth.
- You can even use your body heat to warm your frostbitten hands by simply tucking them under your armpits.
- The frozen skin may develop blisters during the thawing process, but you must never pick at them to avoid infections.
- Never rub or massage the frostbitten area as this can lead to further damage.
- Do not rewarm the frostbitten skin if there’s a chance that you may face severe cold again, because the affected tissue will become irreparably damaged if it refreezes. In such a case, it’s best to let the skin remain frozen until you are in the clear.
- Walking on frostbitten feet can damage the tissue beyond repair and must be avoided unless you are trying to reach a safe location.
Self-Care and Preventive Measures
Here are some useful tips to keep yourself safe from frostbite.
1. Elevate the affected parts
To reduce swelling and numbness, keep the frostbitten parts in an elevated position.
2. Take shelter in warm places
To prevent frostbite from worsening and causing severe damage, it is important to get yourself to warm places immediately.
3. Take some rest
Avoid excessive movement of the affected areas to enhance the recovery process. Elevate the affected part to boost blood circulation.
4. Wear warm clothes
It is recommended to layer up in light and loose clothes, so that warm air is trapped close to your body.
Wear synthetic clothes to absorb moisture. On top of them, wear an insulating material such as wool or fleece to trap the body heat. On the outside, wear materials that are waterproof and windproof. Avoid tight clothing, as it increases the chances of frostbite.
5. Cover your head
Use hats and ski masks to cover your nose and ears. Prevent exposure to cold air by wearing windproof or woolen materials.
6. Protect your extremities
Wear socks that can absorb moisture. Layer them with a woolen pair of socks. The boots that you use should be ankle-high and waterproof. Wear woolen gloves at all times.
7. Prevent entry of snow into your clothing
Wear insulating materials when going in the snow. Use ankle-high boots that will not get buried in the snow, and immediately change your clothes if they get wet.
8. Stay hydrated
Dehydration can increase your chances of developing frostbite. You may not sense thirst in cold weather, but it is essential to drink ample amounts of water. Remember to consume water before heading for any outdoor activity. To prevent dehydration, avoid consumption of alcohol as it is a diuretic.
9. Quit smoking at once
Cigarette smoke releases harmful chemicals in the body that can further hamper blood circulation and worsen or prolong your frostbite.
10. Use aloe vera gel
Gently applying aloe vera over the frostbitten skin can help improve blood flow in the area, which will bring more body heat to the area. Moreover, this healing plant can help prevent cell death induced by frostbite. (2)
Most-Asked Questions About Frostbite
Can cayenne pepper help in treating frostbite?
Cayenne pepper contains capsaicin that helps in treating frostbite by enhancing blood circulation in the body. It can be administered topically or orally. However, no scientific study has established the role of cayenne pepper in treating frostbite.
Is it safe to use heating devices to rewarm the frostbitten skin?
No, frostbite renders your skin completely numb, so you can easily get burnt during the process. The direct heat from a stove, radiator, heating pad, or heat lamp will burn your skin, but you won’t be able to feel it until the damage is done.
Can frostbite lead to amputation?
Extreme frostbite can cause gangrene formation (death of tissue). Extremities affected with gangrene need to be amputated to prevent the spread of disease to the whole body.
What is the difference between chilblains, frostnip, and frostbite?
The formation of colored patches on the skin as a reaction to cold temperatures is known as chilblain. The affected areas develop a rash and swell up. However, it improves in a few weeks if warm conditions are provided.
Frostnip is the freezing of the outer layers of the skin. This occurs in cold weather due to improper blood supply through constricted blood vessels. The skin turns whitish and becomes numb. It is the first stage of frostbite and is easily reversible.
If frostnip is not treated, it may develop into frostbite on persistent exposure to cold weather conditions. The tissue freezes and incurs permanent damage.
Until when do the effects of frostbite last?
If the frostbite is in its initial stages, where only the outer layers have frozen, complete recovery is possible.
The frostbitten areas require time to gain functionality and may or may not be able to regain complete sensation. On exposure to cold weather, the frostbitten areas get cold faster in comparison with the other areas.
Is frostbite fatal?
Frostbite increases the chances of contracting bacterial infections such as tetanus through the wounds. The infection may spread into the blood and cause blood poisoning or septicemia, which can result in tissue damage and organ failure. It can also lead to death.
Frostbite occurs in three stages and the symptoms get progressively worse with each stage. If not immediately dealt with, frostbite can lead to serious, sometimes irreparable, and even life-threatening complications such as hypothermia, bacterial infection (septicemia), and tissue death.
Thus, the goal is to treat it as soon as possible with first-line care and medical assistance if need be.