Frostbite is a medical condition caused by prolonged exposure to the extreme cold. It typically occurs on the extremities. The hands, fingertips, nose, feet, ears, and toes are all common frostbite areas. Frostbite is actually the result of the body’s response to protect the organs from extreme cold.
When people are in cold weather, typically 5 degrees F (-15 C) and below, the skin’s blood vessels narrow. This helps to provide greater blood flow to the rest of the body, especially the organs. However, lessened bloodflow to the skin means less oxygen. Lack of appropriate oxygenation to the skin can lead to cell death, and more than a few cells dying may be termed frostbite.
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Early stages of frostbite are normally treatable. Severe frostbite can result in such significant cell death that the areas affected blacken. This can in turn lead to gangrene and infection. In severe cases, significant frostbite can mean amputating the injured areas to avoid gangrene and infection.
Frostbite is also very painful, though some may have difficulty feeling the areas affected. They may feel numb instead of painful. Some people are more prone to frostbite than others. These include people with heart or circulatory disease, smokers, and those with diabetes. Also, drinking alcohol and being outdoors in extreme cold is never recommended. Alcohol quickly lowers the body temperature, which means people may not feel the cold as much, and may contract frostbite without realizing they are in danger.
Frostbite is a medically emergent condition. If you cannot get to a hospital right away because of weather conditions, you should wrap the affected areas in loose cloths. One can also place the frostbitten areas in lukewarm water. Never use hot water as this can actually worsen the problem. Also, avoid using lotions, which might cause infection.
If a person is also exhibiting signs of hypothermia, this is a medical emergency that takes priority over frostbite. Always treat hypothermia first prior to addressing areas that might be frostbitten. Lastly be sure any dressings used are sterile to help avoid infection. As soon as possible, seek medical attention.
One can help to prevent frostbite by avoiding being out in severe weather conditions. Dressing in layers, that are not cotton, can help provide additional warmth. Wearing hats that cover the ears and scarves that can cover the nose, as well as warm jackets also help. Most suggest wearing mittens instead of gloves, since keeping the fingers together provides more warmth to the hands.