Frostbite is No Joke: 7 Tips to Stay Warm and Avoid Permanent Damage

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When the temperature dips below freezing, it's critical to protect your skin from cold-weather health risks. Frostbite occurs when the skin – and sometimes the tissue beneath the skin – freezes due to prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. Depending on how long and how frozen the tissue, frostbite can result in severe, sometimes permanent, damage.


Frostbite: Prevention and Treatment

"Frostbite usually affects the face, nose, ears, fingers and toes, so on bitterly cold days, it's not enough to just put on a winter coat," said board-certified dermatologist Amy J. Derick, MD, FAAD, clinical instructor of dermatology, Northwestern University. "To really protect your skin from dangerously low temperatures, keep an eye on the weather, dress appropriately for outdoor activities and stay dry."

To prevent frostbite, Dr. Derick recommends the following tips:

  1. Dress in loose, light, comfortable layers: Wearing loose, light layers helps trap warm air. The first layer should be made of a synthetic material, which wicks moisture away from your body. The next layer should be insulating. Wool and fleece are good insulators and hold in more body heat than cotton. The top layer should be windproof and waterproof. A down parka and ski pants can help keep you dry and warm during outdoor activities.
  2. Protect your feet and toes: To protect your feet and toes, wear two pairs of socks. The first pair, next to your skin, should be made of moisture-wicking fabric. Place a pair of wool or wool-blend socks on top of those. Your boots should also provide adequate insulation. They should be waterproof and cover your ankles. Make sure that nothing feels tight, as tight clothing increases the risk of frostbite.
  3. Protect your head: To protect your ears and head, wear a heavy wool or fleece hat. If you are outside on a bitterly cold day, cover your face with a scarf or face mask. This warms the air you breathe and helps prevent frostbite on your nose and face.
  4. Protect your hands: Wear insulated mittens or gloves to help protect your hands from the cold.
  5. Make sure snow cannot get inside of your boots or clothing: Wet clothing increases the risk of developing frostbite. Before heading outdoors, make sure that snow cannot easily get inside of your boots or clothing. While outdoors, if you start to sweat, cut back on your activity or unzip your jacket a bit.
  6. Keep yourself hydrated: Becoming dehydrated also increases the risk of developing frostbite. Even if you are not thirsty, drink at least one glass of water before you head outside, and always drink water or a sports drink before an outdoor workout. In addition, avoid alcohol, as it increases your risk for frostbite.
  7. Recognize the symptoms: In order to detect frostbite early, when it's most treatable, it's important to recognize the symptoms.  The first signs of frostbite include redness and a stinging, burning, throbbing or prickling sensation followed by numbness. If this occurs, head indoors immediately.

"If you experience symptoms of frostbite, try to gradually bring feeling back into the body," said Dr. Derick. "Never rub frostbitten skin or submerge your hands or feet directly into hot water - use warm water or a warm washcloth instead. If you do not feel sensation returning to your body, or if the skin begins to turn gray, go to an emergency room immediately."

For more information on dermatology or Frostbite Prevention:  The "Frostbite: Prevention and Treatment" video presented by the American Academy of Dermatology.

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