For anyone living in Chicago it’s no surprise to hear that this past February was one of the coldest on record. Such conditions carry the risk of frostbite to those who venture outside.
Frostbite is basically the freezing of skin and the underlying tissues. In the head and neck area, the ears and nose are especially susceptible. It can range from frostnip, a superficial injury, to deeper levels of involvement. This freezing compromises the blood vessels, stopping blood flow, and can lead to tissue death if it is prolonged. Paradoxically, in this respect, it is similar to a burn. Individuals with vascular disease, diabetics, and young children are especially susceptible.
It can occur following either brief or prolonged exposures, depending upon the temperature and wind. Symptoms include numbness and a woody feeling of the skin. Skin color changes ranging from redness to whitish/gray and purple discoloration can occur. Blistering suggests a more severe injury.
The preferred treatment is to get out of the cold and gently rewarm the involved areas to restore blood flow. Warm water is preferable as opposed to aggressive re-heating measures. It can be painful as the feeling comes back. Blisters if present should be left intact. Medical attention should be sought urgently if significant discolorations of the skin or persistent numbness are present. Rubbing of snow on the skin will damage the skin further. Conditions that cause frostbite can lead to hypothermia which should be suspected if slurred speech and sleepiness are present.
Prevention is the key. Alcohol should be avoided. Children’s time outside should be monitored. Those who need to be outside should anticipate the weather, keep the face and ears covered, dress in layers, and keep moving. Common sense always applies.