Don’t let Jack Frost come nipping at your nose
November 30, 2016
Yes, it has been an unbelievable fall. However, the weather is getting colder and soon there will be snow. It will be time for sledding, skating, skiing and walks in the winter wonderland we call campus. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services wants you to enjoy this season but to also protect yourself from frostbite.
Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing. Frostbite can cause a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes.
A frostbite victim is often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because the frozen tissues are numb, so look out for your neighbors. At the first signs of skin redness or pain, get them out of the cold and protect any exposed skin. Watch for skin that has turned white or grayish and feels firm, waxy or numb.
Seek immediate medical attention if you or your friends have any of these symptoms. If medical care is not available immediately, keep the following in mind until you can get checked out by a health care provider:
- Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes. This increases the damage.
- Immerse the affected area in warm (not hot) water. The temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body.
- Another option is to warm the affected area using body heat. For example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers.
- Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it at all. This can cause more damage.
- Don’t use a heating pad, heat lamp or the heat of a stove, fireplace or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can be easily burned.
This information is given to you with the intent not to scare you, but to make you aware that frostbite can be very serious. The Centers for Disease Control’s Emergency website states that frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and among people who are not dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures. When outdoors, wear warm clothing such as:
- a hat
- a scarf or knit mask to cover face and mouth
- sleeves that are snug at the wrist
- mittens (they are warmer than gloves)
- water-resistant coat and boots
- several layers of loose fitting clothing
Be sure the outer layer of your clothing is tightly woven, preferably wind resistant, to reduce body heat loss caused by wind. Wool, silk or polypropylene inner layers of clothing will hold more body heat than cotton. Stay dry, because wet clothing chills the body rapidly. Excess perspiration will increase heat loss, so remove extra layers of clothing whenever you feel too warm.
When there are high winds, frostbite is more likely to occur, even when temperatures are only cool. The wind chill index is the temperature your body feels when the air temperature is combined with the wind speed. As the speed of the wind increases, it can carry heat away from your body much more quickly, causing skin temperature to drop. Most weather channels and apps will give a wind chill index along with the number of minutes it will take exposed skin to become frostbitten.
Taking preventive action is your best defense against having to deal with extreme cold weather conditions. By observing safety precautions during times of extremely cold weather, you can reduce the risk of weather-related health problems.
Remember to protect yourself against frostbite by wearing warm clothing that covers your skin and remove any wet clothing immediately. Limit your time outdoors. Watch for signs of frostbite among your friends, elderly adults, babies, people drinking alcohol and others at risk. Seek immediate medical attention if you suspect someone has frostbite.
Visit cdc.gov/disasters/winter/staysafe/frostbite.html for more information on frostbite.
Laura Otto is a student health nurse at UW-River Falls.