We just got home from one of our favorite places to vacation, the mountains in Colorado. The weather was deceivingly cold. Even when the sun was out and our skiers and snow boarders came home with many spots that needed to be warmed up! Fortunately we didn’t have any cases of frostbite, but I thought it would be helpful to review how to dress for the cold weather and what to do when someone does show signs of frostbite or hypothermia.
Here are some important things to remember when you are outside exposed to the elements for long periods of time:
- Wear a hat to prevent thermal loss from your head. Even better; a mask that covers your nose and cheeks will help keep more parts of your face from getting frostbite. Mittens that are water resistant (mittens are said to keep your fingers warmer). Warm wool socks (again not cotton) and well insulated boots that will stay dry and will keep your feet protected and warm.
- Dress in layers. Avoid cotton since it is not a good insulator. When cotton gets wet it takes longer to dry and your body temperature will rapidly drop. Better materials are synthetics like polypropylene and performance fabrics or wools that wick wetness away from you skin. The middle layer should offer some insulation even if it gets wet from snow or sweat. Wear a thick insulating fabric over your wicking layers. Have waterproof or at least water resistant outside layers.
- If you feel body parts getting really cold it is time to come inside and find shelter to warm up. Waiting too long can cause your body temperature to drop which could become life threatening.
- Remember you burn more calories in cold weather so make sure you have snacks and liquids to refresh yourself.
According to Mayo Clinic Frostbite occurs in several stages:
- Frostnip. The first stage of frostbite is frostnip. With this mild form of frostbite, your skin pales or turns red and feels very cold. Continued exposure leads to prickling and numbness in the affected area. As your skin warms, you may feel pain and tingling. Frostnip doesn’t permanently damage the skin.
- Superficial frostbite. The second stage of frostbite appears as reddened skin that turns white or pale. The skin may remain soft, but some ice crystals may form in the tissue. Your skin may begin to feel warm — a sign of serious skin involvement. If you treat frostbite with rewarming at this stage, the surface of your skin may appear mottled, blue or purple. And you may notice stinging, burning and swelling. A fluid-filled blister may appear 24 to 36 hours after rewarming the skin.
- Severe (deep) frostbite. As frostbite progresses, it affects all layers of the skin, including the tissues that lie below. You may experience numbness, losing all sensation of cold, pain or discomfort in the affected area. Joints or muscles may no longer work. Large blisters form 24 to 48 hours after rewarming. Afterward, the area turns black and hard as the tissue dies.
Rewarm mild frostbite areas by using warm water (101 to 104 degrees) NOT hot water or by applying warm cloths to the area. Make sure you remove any jewelry before rewarming since swelling may occur and NEVER rub or massage the frozen area.
Seek medical attention for frostbite if you experience:
- Signs and symptoms of superficial or deep frostbite — such as white or pale skin, numbness, or blisters
- Increased pain, swelling, redness or discharge in the area that was frostbitten
- New, unexplained symptoms
Get emergency medical help if you suspect hypothermia, a condition in which your body loses heat faster than it can be produced.
Signs and symptoms of hypothermia include:
- Intense shivering
- Slurred speech
- Drowsiness and loss of coordination
The winter weather offers many fun things to do but care needs to be taken to make sure you are not endangering your health. Remember to dress correctly and watch to make sure that frostbite is not going to spoil your fun in the snow!