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Frostbite: Information for When You Travel

Although frostbite is not a major concern at home here in Austin, TX, we know that many of you have relatives who live in the north or take business trips throughout the year. When you travel to colder climates in the wintertime, it is important that you be able recognize symptoms of frostbite and know how to prevent major issues.

Frozen Body Tissue

The basic symptoms of frostbite are most commonly experienced in extremities like your fingers and toes, and also your cheeks, chin, ears, and nose. With regard to your fingers and toes, they are the furthest removed points from your heart, so blood flow (which keeps you warm internally) isn’t as strong in those areas.

Signs to be aware for this condition include cold skin, a prickling feeling, gradual numbing, discolored skin (often white, red, grayish-yellow, or bluish white), waxy-looking skin, and clumsiness due to muscle and joint stiffness. In severe cases, you may develop blisters after rewarming or, even worse, gangrene.

This cold-weather skin injury has three degrees that range in severity:

  • Frostnip – This is the earliest stage and will not result in permanent tissue damage. Signs that you are this stage include pale or reddened skin, cold sensation, and an onset of prickling and numbness.
  • Superficial – The second stage is marked by the outer layer of your skin being affected. You will know you have progressed past the point of frostnip when you can see ice crystals have formed in your skin, yet it is still soft and may actually begin to feel warm in the cold air. Upon rewarming, your skin may appear blue, purple, or mottled and you will feel a burning, stinging, and swelling in the area. You may also develop a fluid-filled blister within the next day to day-and-a-half.
  • Deep – In the third stage, skin and underlying tissue becomes frozen and there is risk of permanent damage. At this point, you can expect complete numbness and loss of joint and muscle function. Afterward, large blisters will form 24 to 48 hours following rewarming and the area will turn black as your tissue dies.

Seek medical care if you experience any of the signs of superficial or deep frostbite, develop a fever, or notice increased redness, swelling, pain, or discharge from the affected area.

First-aid and Medical Treatments

Your first line of defense against frostbite is first-aid care, which can be performed if you have only experience the initial stage of frostnip. First-aid includes:

  • Protect your exposed skin from further exposure to the cold air.
  • Get indoors and out of the cold. Once inside, remove any wet clothes and put on dry ones.
  • Gradually rewarm your frostbitten areas in warm (not hot) water. Also, avoid the temptation to use a source of direct heat, like a stove or fireplace.
  • Avoid walking on frostbitten toes and feet, when possible.

Once you advance past frostnip, you need to have medical care, and these treatments will often entail any of the following: skin warming, oral pain medication, injury protection, debridement (removing dead, damaged, or infected tissue), whirlpool therapy, infection-fighting drugs, wound therapy, surgery (including potential amputation), and possibly hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

Prevention Measures

Much like many injuries you can sustain, you are better off simply preventing this condition in the first place. When you find yourself in a frozen setting, the following tips will help keep you safe:

  • Keep the amount of time you spend in wet, windy, cold weather to a minimum.
  • Layer your clothing when going out into the cold. Wear mittens (instead of gloves) and a hat that covers your ears. Opt for socks that wick moisture, provide insulation, and fit well.
  • Keep emergency supplies of warm clothing and blankets in the car when you travel, in the event that you become stranded.
  • Do not push yourself to the point of exhaustion, but if you keep moving you will promote blood flow that keeps you warm.

If you would like more information on the subject or have come back from a frigid environment and recognize symptoms of frostbite, we can answer any questions you may have or provide necessary treatment. Contact our office at (512) 328-8900 or use our online form to request an appointment today.

Most people who have searched this content have also found Winter Foot Care Tips helpful.

Dr. Craig H. Thomajan, DPM, FACFAS, FAENS
Founder and Managing Partner of Austin Foot and Ankle Specialists