Anyone who grew up skiing, sledding, or building snowmen in the front yard is intimately familiar with the shiver in your extremities that slowly turns into an aching pain as you throw more snowballs, take one more lap around the track or skip again. the elevator for one more run.
But resisting frigid discomfort can have lasting ramifications if cold fingers or facial features deteriorate and freeze. In fact, losing parts of your fingers, toes, cheeks, or nose is a real risk in case of a bad cold. Fortunately, there are ways to help prevent that from happening and treat this appendix-threatening cold injury if you or a fellow adventurer falls victim to it.
What is happening to frozen fingers?
Frostbite and its less severe cousin, frostbite, are, in the simplest terms, when skin and tissue, which is mostly made of water, freezes. This usually happens when they are exposed to temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, although wind chill also plays a factor. In a wind chill of -17 degrees, frostbite can occur on exposed skin in less than 30 minutes. The areas most at risk, as mentioned above, are the fingers and toes and facial features such as the cheeks and nose.
Freezing tends to affect these areas for one reason: circulation. Or rather, the lack thereof. See, when it’s cold outside, your body’s automatic response is to redirect blood away from your extremities and toward your core, where insulation in the form of muscle, fat, and organs can keep it from freezing (and where blood is most important for survival). .
But more warm blood in the core and less in the uninsulated fingers means the tissue in those unheated areas becomes more susceptible to freezing.
And when that tissue starts to freeze, ice crystals begin to form and expand as water in the skin, cells and blood solidify, explains Darby DeHart, a paramedic and ski patrolman at Brighton Resort in Utah. These crystals will pierce through tissues and cells like jagged microscopic daggers.
How to identify the symptoms of frostbite
Freezing doesn’t just happen. There will be warning signs and a progression of symptoms. Extremities that are simply cold are likely to ache and feel cold to the touch, but that discomfort will lessen once you put on a glove or fit a warmer in your boot. Left unaddressed, however, red and aggravated skin are the first signs that a problem is brewing. The affected area may turn yellowish or gray and numb and tingle as cold areas freeze.
When that discomfort turns into pain and the skin turns white, waxy and doesn’t spring back when pressed, or the fingers or toes no longer bend, the cold injury has turned into frostbite and you’ll need to take action. protective clothing and seek medical attention. attention as soon as possible.
[Related: How to stay warm when sleeping in the frigid outdoors]
Ideally, however, you should take preventative measures so you don’t have to think about diagnosing and treating cold injuries in the first place.
Take steps to prevent frostbite
Your first defense against frostbite is to cover up, especially areas like fingers and toes and facial features where there is no insulation in the form of fat or muscle. Wear warm gloves and socks, plus a hat, neck gaiter, or balaclava that can cover your nose and cheeks, and dress in layers. Seriously, bring more clothes than you think you need.
If fabric alone isn’t enough to keep the cold at bay, pack extra warmth in the form of battery-heated socks and gloves or hand and foot warmers. These can be lifesavers in cold temperatures and keep susceptible body parts warm for hours.
Tips for treating frostbite
If a cold injury has progressed to frostbite or frostbite, DeHart recommends rewarming the affected area as soon as possible, preferably indoors with water heated to between 100 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit, slightly warmer than your normal body temperature. Any hotter and you could do more damage, so the rule is low and slow. Immerse the affected area until it is no longer white or waxy.
But DeHart insists that you only reheat a frozen area if you’re absolutely sure you can keep the area warm. If you’re stuck outside with no heat, perhaps while camping in the winter or injured while skiing and waiting for help, it’s best to simply wrap the area to protect it from further exposure, but let it stay cool, DeHart advises.
She explains that this is because when the ice crystals pierce the fabric, they are not clean and pointy like perfectly cylindrical icicles, they are irregular and misshapen. And if they do melt and freeze again, they will do so in a different way, piercing the tissue in terrifying new ways. This can lead to further damage as frostbite begins to disrupt the deeper dermal and subcutaneous layers.
When to seek medical attention
Anytime you think you’ve suffered from frostbite, head to the hospital as soon as possible. Still, it’s important to know that depending on the severity of the injury, healing can be a nail-biting process while you wait to see if you’ll end up losing part of your injured appendix, DeHart warns. This is because once the damaged tissue warms up again, the affected areas can swell and turn purple or black over the next few days or weeks, a sure sign that amputation is imminent.
It happens because your body notices the microscopic pinpricks caused by tissue freezing and tries to heal itself by clotting. But that cuts off circulation, often completely, and can lead to the loss of part of the affected area, DeHart says.
Hospitals are trying to find ways to keep the vasculature of damaged tissue open using blood thinners and fibrinolytic therapy to keep circulation strong and prevent clots from forming, but this treatment is still experimental.
What not to do when you have frostbite
If you end up frozen, there are a few things you shouldn’t do. If blisters do form, do not break or burst them as further tissue damage may be caused. And if your skin turns white and waxy, don’t rub or massage it to warm it up. Your tissue is fragile at that point, and you could peel the skin off, DeHart says.
Stay safe and warm
Whatever you do, if a part of your body starts to ache from the cold, don’t resist or wait to pay attention where it’s due. Especially since if you experience frostbite or frostbite once, you’re more likely to experience it again. Listen to your body, and if a cold is becoming a problem, treat it right away. “Preventive medicine is always the best medicine,” says DeHart. Not only could you save your fingers or toes, but you’ll enjoy your time outdoors more if you don’t feel pain or discomfort from the cold.