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The Dangers of Frostbite

The dangers of frostbite aren’t just applicable to mountaineers; it can happen to everyday outdoor enthusiasts. Simply put, you are at risk if you spend anytime exposed to temperatures below freezing. Most often frostbite affects the extremities — fingers and toes, hands and feet — but it can also damage the nose, ears, cheeks, your forehead and your shins, because these parts of your body are exposed to the cold or there is little blood flow there to deliver warmth to the tissue.

Prevention Of Frostbite

To protect against frostbite, prevent the skin from being exposed to temperatures at or below freezing. Keep all parts of your body covered. When appropriate, wear a neoprene full-face mask, wear a neck warmer, and use hand and foot warmers inside mittens and boots. Frostbite has even occurred to the cornea of the eye, so in extreme conditions wear goggles. Do not tolerate any level of numbness or wet clothing. While it’s important to wear the right clothing, prevention is also about keeping your clothing dry.

Your body is also kept warm through exertion. If you are unable to move freely and generate body heat through exercise, you are more vulnerable to frostbite. Being well nourished is important also because that gives your body fuel to keep the internal fires burning. If you have medical conditions that result in impaired circulation, you are also more vulnerable. Or if you allow yourself to become dehydrated, you can also become more vulnerable to frostbite.

Signs and Symptoms of Frostbite

One of the first symptoms of emerging frostbite is numbness. You need to pay special attention to those parts of the body that are most critical. Periodically, wiggle fingers and toes and test to see that you can still feel them. For the face and ears, exercise the facial muscles and feel for numbness. Check your ears with your fingers. As frostbite increases, the skin may take on a waxy palor and become slightly white or yellow in color. Use a mirror to check your own face and ears, and if you’re with companions use the buddy system to check each other. Do this frequently when the temperature is below freezing and skin is exposed.

Blisters and swollen, gray or blackened tissue are signs of advanced frostbite, and the victim needs immediate medical attention.

Treating Frostbite

If a hand or foot is numb, take that symptom seriously and move the victim to a warm, dry shelter. If an individual with a frozen foot has some distance to hike before reaching safety, it’s better to keep the boot on and the foot frozen during the hike and thaw it later. Never thaw a frozen extremity if there is any chance that it will refreeze. Flesh that has once been frozen will be at greater risk to future freezing.
When you get the victim to a suitable location, remove the boot and begin the re-warming (thawing) process. Be aware that this process is intensely painful. You can begin by inserting the frozen fingers or toes in a friend’s armpit, or placing the foot against a person’s stomach, if another slow-heating medium that’s more suitable is not available. A better method is to immerse the limb, toes or fingers in warm (NOT HOT) water (105-110 degrees F is suggested). The water will feel hot, but will do no damage to the flesh, although it might do some damage to the victim’s vocabulary.

After a thorough thawing, loosely wrap the limb to protect it while not impeding circulation. Next, get the injured to a hospital for proper care.

Winter is an exciting season to be outdoors. By taking proper care, we can safely enjoy this beautiful and memorable time of year.