Now that the extreme cold has arrived in the northern U.S. after a mild winter so far, doctors are warning about the potential for frostbite and hypothermia.
Winter doesn’t usually slow down outdoor activity for most Midwesterners. However, those who are going to be outdoors when wind chills are below 20 or 30 degrees should keep in mind that frostbite can set in on exposed skins within a matter of minutes.
“It’s imperative that parents are bundling up their children in this weather, and they should skip making snowmen until the temperature increases,” Stephanie O’Malley, CMA, (AAMA) medical assistant, medical administrative assistant, and mental health technician program chair at Minnesota School of Business in Rochester, said.
Thousands of people suffer from frostbite each winter. In the record-cold winter of 2013, Hennepin County Medical Center saw more than 200 cases of frostbite, which is triple the average.
Frostbite is most common in fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin, according to Mayo Clinic. It can still occur on skin that is covered by gloves or other clothing.
Stages of Frostbite
- First-degree frostbite: A mild form of frostbite in which your skin turns red and feels really cold.
- Second -degree frostbite: In this stage the reddened skin will turn white or very pale. Upon warming, blisters may appear. This results in some tissue and nerve damage.
- Third-degree frostbite: Affecting all layers of the skin, the area will turn black and hard as tissue dies.
Other symptoms to watch out for include a prickly feeling, numbness, discolored skin, hard or waxy-looking skin, joint and muscle stiffness and blistering.
Keep in mind when exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Low body temperatures may make you unable to think clearly or move well. According to the Center for Disease Control, you may not know you have hypothermia and you won’t be able to do anything about it.
Warning signs of hypothermia:
- Adults: Shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness.
- Infants: Bright red, cold skin and very low energy.
- If your temperature is below 95 degrees, get medical attention immediately.
Treatment for frostbite includes first-aid care and medical treatment, depending on the severity of the frostbite. You can treat very mild frostbite with first-aid measures. All other frostbite requires medical attention.
You should see a doctor if your skin turns white or pale blue, you have numbness, blisters form, fever or new unexplained symptoms.
If you suspect hypothermia call for medical help. Otherwise, gently warm frostbitten areas in warm water in temperatures of 99 to 108 degrees for 15 to 30 minutes. Lisa Smith, chair of the medical assistant program at Minnesota School of Business says to make sure that you are still able to continue warming up.
If you are in pain, take pain medication such as Advil or Motrin IB to reduce pain and inflammation. You can also apply aloe vera gel or lotion to reduce inflammation.
- Avoid further exposure to the cold and wind.
- Avoid breaking blisters.
- Stay off frostbitten feet.
- Don’t apply direct heat or rub the area. Avoid heating pads.
- Wrap gauze as needed between fingers and toes to help prevent rubbing.
If it is severe enough, sometimes amputation is required, O’Malley said.
- Limit the time you are outdoors in cold, wet or windy weather.
- Dress in layers of loose, warm clothing.
- Wear a hat or headband the fully covers your ears.
- Wear mittens rather than gloves.
- Wear socks and sock liners.
- Don’t drink alcohol or caffeine if you plan to be outside, and stay hydrated.
- Keep moving.
- Take warm up breaks often.
Be aware of the weather
- Wind chill advisory: means windchills are expected to fall between minus 20 and minus 29 degrees
- Wind chill watch: windchills of -30 degrees or lower are expected in the next two-three days
- Wind chill warning: windchills of 30 degrees below zero or lower are expected in the next day or two.
- According to the National Weather Center, frostbite can set in in 10-15 minutes when windchills are minus 30 degrees or lower.