A Guide to Preventing Frostbite
Frostbite can be a very uncomfortable occurrence, and in certain circumstances there is a relatively high likelihood of it. That’s why in this article, I wanted to take an in depth look into how to avoid frostbite.
What can I do to avoid frostbite?
Short answer: know the signs and carefully monitor for them. Seek shelter immediately if you notice anything.
- Return warmth to the area the soonest possible after noticing frostbite.
- Seek medical attention if it is in the superficial or deep degree (2nd-3rd degrees) or symptoms do not get better.
- Take preventative measures to prevent frostbite occuring: like avoiding cold areas, wearing warm clothing and keeping covered. There are many prevention strategies to have in place, and you should always make use of them to prevent and minimise frostbite.
What is Frostbite?
Frostbite occurs due to exposure to cold, resulting in the freezing of the skin and tissue beneath it. It comes along with a variety of symptoms.
There are also different degrees to frostbite - from mild to severe.
Your skin may still be affected regardless of cover-ups or protective clothing such as gloves, and it often occurs in cold climates or as a result of other local exposure to cold.
There are a few areas of the body that may be most likely or more susceptible to experiencing frostbite.
The most common are:
- Your fingers and toes
- Ears (your ears are often exposed to cold while the rest of you is covered in cold conditions)
- Nose area
- Around your chin area
Treatment needed will vary depending on the severity of your frostbite (the stage it is at).
There are different degrees of frostbite, as outlined below:
Frostnip (or the first/mild level of frostbite)
This is the mildest form of frostbite and the one that is most easily treatable. It often may be simply treated by rewarming.
You may notice you go numb in the area after an exposure to cold; especially prolonged exposures.
Once you return warmth to the skin, there may be some sensations of tingling or prickling as your feeling starts to return.
There will be no lasting damage as a result of frostnip.
This form will often result in discolouration to the skin, and after rewarming you may notice fluid filled blisters start to appear after 12-36 hours.
If your skin starts to feel warm, this is an indication of this type of frostbite.
Upon rewarming the skin, you may notice: a mottling appearance occurring on the skin, alongside sensations of stinging, a burning feeling or swelling.
Deep or severe frostbite
In deep or severe frostbite, every layer of the skin including the tissue beneath it is impacted by the cold exposure. This is the most severe degree of frostbite.
In this degree the skin discolouration may be quite severe (typically blue or blue-ish white) and there will be virtually no sensation present. You will likely not feel pain or discomfort and be entirely numb.
You also may experience severe limitations in your mobility, and your joints or muscles may become compromised.
Blisters after rewarming will be large, and reform about 24-48 hours post returning warmth to the area.
The skin tissue may become hardened and blackened due to tissue death.
What are the Symptoms of Frostbite?
Sometimes it may be difficult to even realise you have frostbite until it is explicitly pointed out to you by another person - if you have gone numb.
It also may be difficult to physically observe signs of frostbite or discolouration on darker skinned individuals.
The symptoms of frostbite may vary in degree depending on the severity of the frostbite itself.
However, as following are some of the common symptoms:
- Initially, your skin feeling very cold and a possible “prickling” sensation
- Going numb in the area
- Different skin colouration: such as blue, purple, red, white, greyish-yellow or brownish. The colour that appears will typically vary according to severity of the frostbite.
- Hardened skin or a “waxy” appearance
- Reduced mobility or becoming clumsy due to stiff joints/muscles
- Blistering after warmth is restored (in severe frostbite degrees).
When to seek help for frostbite:
The second and third degrees (superficial and deep frostbite) should be treated by a doctor. It is really only the first degree of frostbite (frostnip) that you should be able to treat entirely by yourself.
You must seek medical attention if you experience:
- Indications of the second and third frostbite stages (outlined above)
- Continually rising pain in the area the frostbite occurred; or it becoming swollen, inflamed or discharging.
- Newly appearing symptoms that can not be identified
- Hardened, cold or blotchy skin (may indicate second stage superficial frostbite)
Importantly, as a secondary linked medical condition you must carefully watch for hypothermia.
Monitor for indications of hypothermia (which may accompany frostbite).
Hypothermia occurs due to severe cold exposure and can be very dangerous.
- Very severe shivering
- Slurring of speech
- Disorientation or drowsiness and poor coordination
You should do all you can to retain body heat until medical attention is present.
You can do this by wrapping blankets around the affected individual or returning them to a warmer area with any additional measures available.
How Can I Prevent Frostbite?
Don’t spend too much time in very cold or windy areas, or limit exposure time
Avoid extended time in cold, wet or windy areas and seek shelter the most possible.
Wear loose, multi-layered clothing as opposed to just one layer
Try to go for multiple layers of good quality, warm clothing.
Ensure it is loose fitting if possible. Rubbing/abrasion is undesirable, and the goal is to have insulated heat become trapped between layers of clothing to keep you nice and warm for long periods.
Waterproof and/or windproof outer attire (example jackets) is an excellent choice, alongside moisture absorbing clothes.
Change out of wet clothes the soonest possible.
Consider hats or headbands in order to protect your ears
As mentioned, ears are more susceptible to frostbite than other areas.
Wear a good hat/headband that protects your ears.
Beanies may be a good option.
Choose mittens as opposed to gloves
You could also use glove liners underneath your gloves/mittens.
Mittens provide more warmth and coverage than gloves do, so choosing them is preferable.
Choose socks or sock liners that are insulated and moisture absorbing
It is a good idea to choose socks that are moisture absorbent and insulated if possible.
They will help to preserve your body heat and also ensure the area stays dry.
Keep a close eye on frostbite indications
Especially considering sometimes it can be difficult to know you have experienced frostbite until it is identified (due to sensation loss), it is very important to monitor carefully for signs.
The signs of frostbite are listed above under the symptoms section.
You should have those around you aware of the signs of frostbite alongside yourself, and this will make it easier for you to seek shelter in a prompt manner if it does begin to show.
Do not drink alcohol in cold climates
Alcohol can lower your body temperature, so it should be avoided as much as possible if you know you are going to be spending time in a cold area.
Do not drink to reduce your chances of severe frostbite and further problems in case it happens.
Maintain frequent movement as much as possible
Try to stay moving as much as you can, and keep your blood and circulation flowing to restore bodily warmth.
Have an emergency backup plan and supplies available
It is a great idea to plan beforehand for the event of frostbite potentially occurring.
You can do this in a number of ways:
- Keep supplies on hand in the instance hypothermia or frostbite occurs. These could include: blankets, layers of clothing, first aid supplies, emergency backup supplies or ensuring access to medical attention if it is needed.
How Effective are the Preventative Measures?
Depending, preventative measures can be highly effective to both treat and avoid frostbite.
They may also prevent hypothermia very well, which is especially crucial. Measures like warm clothing, avoidance of cold and proper vigilance if any signs are noticed may even entirely prevent frostbite altogether.
Hence, it is very important to follow them.
Should I seek medical attention for hypothermia? Absolutely. Watch out carefully for severe signs of hypothermia and seek immediate help if it occurs.
If my symptoms do not disappear, should I seek medical help? If you are not noticing healing after a period (even after rewarming) or notice any new or increasing symptoms, you should see a doctor.
Frostbite can be very uncomfortable and cause severe issues in the later stages. It also may coincide with hypothermia; which is serious and needs prompt treatment.
For these reasons, it is important to carefully monitor for signs and seek shelter immediately if they occur.
Make sure you have a plan and preventative measures in place, to reduce your risk or diminish it altogether.