Frostbite Dangers, Prevention and Treatment

Frigid temperatures and wind-chill can easily freeze unprotected skin. A doctor tells us which extremities are most at risk from frostbite and how to protect them.

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CLEVELAND – Frostbite can be a serious condition, causing numbness, permanent nerve damage and even amputation.

Donald Ford, MD, family medicine physician for Cleveland Clinic, said frigid temperatures and artic air can easily freeze unprotected skin.

“When the body is exposed to extreme cold, the blood recirculates towards the trunk and the inner organs because those are the most important to keep warm, to keep oxygenated for life. So in order to stay alive, the body prefers sending the warm blood to the inner organs,” said Dr. Ford.

Single-digit temperatures can cause frostbite, and it only takes a matter of minutes to get frostbite when the wind chill is -15 degrees or lower.

When the digits dip, fingers, toes, nose and ears are most at risk since they receive less blood flow.

When your skin gets numb and you can’t feel the cold in your tissues, the damage is done and pain starts to set in.

To help prevent frostbite, avoid getting your skin wet when your outdoors. Stay dry with waterproof clothing and bundle up.

If your skin feels numb and cold, it’s best to warm up slowly indoors.

“You want to get into a warm tub or put your hands in a warm pot of water. It should be warm and not hot. Hot water, when there is no circulation or no nerve sensation, you can actually burn the skin on top of a frostbite,” said Dr. Ford.

Once inside and reheated, recovery is a wait and see situation. Dr. Ford said it’s a good sign if you get sensation back and the skin looks normal in a day or two.

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