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Winter’s Bite: What to Do When Winter Has You in its Icy Grip

December 21, 2018
Authored by R. David McCallum, MD
General Surgery and
Ronald J. Franzino, MD
General and Laparoscopic Surgery

With the arrival of colder temperatures, shorter days, and weaker sunshine, it’s the start of another frostbite season. It’s important to take steps to avoid frostbite and keep warm this time of year.

This seems like an easy thing to do, but it’s more than chills and chattering teeth. If you’re not careful about protecting yourself from the elements, you could risk getting frostbite or hypothermia. Here’s what you need to know to prevent it and enjoy your time outdoors this winter.

What is frostbite?
Frostbite is a bodily injury that can occur when your skin is exposed to the cold. Cold exposure can cause the top layer of your skin and some of the tissues beneath it to freeze. It most often affects the body’s extremities (nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes).

How does frostbite occur?
The process of frostbite occurs in stages. As extremities and other small exposed parts of the body get cold, they begin to lose sensation. Once numb, blood vessels shut down and the risk of permanent harm and loss of tissue can be consequent.

The body has an amazing system to maintain your internal temperature, a term doctors call “thermoregulation.” This process involves insulating fat (yes, we all have fat), vasoconstriction (the opening and closing of blood vessels), and changes in the pace of metabolism to “heat up the furnace.” Our limbs are designed with internal mechanisms that keep blood warm as it gets farther away from the heart.

Severe frostbite can cause the body to lose the ability to maintain its core temperature causing a life-threatening condition known as hypothermia.

Recognizing frostbite
Signs and symptoms of frostbite include:

•At first, cold skin and a prickling feeling
•Numbness
•Red, white, bluish-white or grayish-yellow skin
•Hard or waxy-looking skin
•Clumsiness due to joint and muscle stiffness
•Blistering after rewarming, in severe cases

Who’s Most at Risk?
You may have a greater risk of developing frostbite if you have poor blood circulation or are not properly dressed for extremely cold temperatures.

While frostbite and hypothermia are thankfully rare, both conditions do happen here in the Quiet Corner. Every year we care for patients in the Wound Care Clinic at Day Kimball Hospital who come in with numb or dead black toes and other parts of their feet. We also treat patients in the Emergency Department who are in various stages of hypothermia. Sadly, this very real condition is not always reversible.

Avoiding frostbite
The best way to avoid injury is to minimize exposed body parts and your time spent in the cold elements. Dress in loose, light, comfortable layers that allow you to peel off or layer up to better control your temperature.

Certain forms of clothing are better suited to help your body retain heat. Space-age materials, fleeces, and down feathers are excellent insulators and come in a variety of clothing styles.

Although not always fashionable, covering your head is an easy way to avoid heat loss. The head loses the most heat of any body part so it’s important to protect it if you are outside on a bitterly cold day. Warm clothes like knit hats, sweaters and gloves make terrific holiday gifts.

What to do
If frostbite or hypothermia does occur, go directly to your local emergency department where experts can help preserve limbs and life.

The Wound Care Clinic at Day Kimball Hospital is here to help this winter with your frostbite injuries. Learn more about the Wound Care Clinic or call us at 860-963-6350.

Armed with this knowledge we hope you stay warm and well this holiday season.

Related Resources 

Your Health & Wellness: Articles from the Experts

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