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Survival / October 29, 2017

Frostbite: How to keep your fingers and toes

Written by: Brad Shannon

Most of us don’t worry too much about frostbite. It’s generally considered the sort of thing that happens to alpine climbers and polar explorers, not regular Joes and Joans like you an me.

But according to the American College of Sports Medicine, frostbite can occur any time air temperatures dip below freezing. So it’s totally possible to get frostbite on a winter hike, a day on the slopes, or even a November bike commute.

The process goes like this: when skin is exposed to very low temperatures, water freezes inside our cells. It expands into crystals with jagged edges, tearing open cell walls and causing serious tissue damage.

That sounds… bad. So as the temperatures start to drop here in Colorado, I reached out to some medical experts for their frostbite prevention tips.


1. Cover up

Duh. Frostbite usually effects exposed skin, so it’s frequently experienced on cheeks, noses, ears, and wrists. It’s also common on hands and feet, because the body moves blood away from these extremities in extreme temperatures.

So cover up your skin, but avoid doing so with tight or restrictive clothing. Any item that hinders blood flow will increase your risk of frostbite. Remove backpacks periodically to ensure bloodflow to arms and hands, and resist the temptation to over-layer socks to the point where they crowd feet in boots.

In an emergency situation, look for coverings that will trap heat and moisture. Dr. Chris Davis, who runs the University of Colorado’s Wilderness Medicine Fellowship, recommends a simple solution: trash bags. Heavy duty trash bags trap heat and provide protection from wind. Store one of two in your winter bag, and they just might save your life (or at least your fingers).


2. Eat

Most people rightly understand that drinking hot drinks will keep their body temperatures up, said Janice Weixelman, a D.O. with northern Colorado’s Larimer County Search and Rescue. But they often forget that eating can do the same thing.

“Just the energy the body puts into metabolizing food generates heat,” Wiexelman said. “When you nibble steadily while you enjoy yourself, that helps maintain a little higher body temperature and gives you energy for what your body needs to do to deal with that cold environment.”


3. Forget the folk remedies

You may have heard that rubbing petroleum jelly on your hands or face will keep them warm. This is not true.

John W. Castellani, Ph.D. studies cold weather for the U.S. Army, and he tested the effects of petrolum jelly and similar products. He found that while they do make skin feel warmer, they may actually increase the risk of frostbite by creating a false sense of security.

So don’t bother with them. Likewise, resist the temptation to blow warm breath into gloves or mittens. The vapor in your breath will likely freeze, and that will ultimately make your hands colder. Taking your hands out of your gloves to blow on them is also a bad idea—just leave them in your gloves.


4. Take Ibuprofen

Frostbite hurts. So anyone suffering from it should take a painkiller as early as possible. Davis said he prefers Ibuprofen because it also reduces inflammation, which is at the heart of frostbite injuries.

“Tissue can look really bad, especially six to 16 hours after thawing. And [Ibuprofen] literally helps prevent the need for amputations, in part due to the anti-prostaglandin effect they have that reduces inflammation.”

(We looked that word up, and “anti-prostaglandin” is just a very technical way of describing the means by which Ibuprofen reduces inflammation.)


5. If it freezes, leave it frozen

Frozen tissue is bad. Re-frozen tissue is worse.

“Refreezing leads to significantly worse, deeper, more catastrophic injury—more tissue necrosis and death, and increased chance of possible amputation.” said Dr. Lindsey Deeter, who handles burn surgery at the Northern Colorado Medical Center (frostbite injuries are treated as burns).

“Once you notice an injury, only rewarm if you know you can keep it warm.”

Davis (of the Wilderness Medicine Fellowship), said that advice is especially pertinent for frostbite on the feet.

“If you rewarm your feet, you get non-usable feet – swollen, bloody, painful. If you’re self-rescuing, leave them frozen.”

Once you do rewarm your injuries, make sure to get medical attention within 24 hours. After that, it is very difficult to save the limb. Even if the frostbite looks mild, have a professional look for damage.


6. But seriously—just don’t get frostbite

Avoiding frostbite isn’t rocket surgery. Dress in layers, and wear gloves, socks, and a hat. Keep exra layers in your car or backpack. Try hard to stay dry.

If you’re cold and can’t get warm, change your situation. Go inside if possible. If you can’t get inside, seek alternative shelter. Get out of the wind, and into a confined, sheltered space where you can conserve heat and even absorb heat from another person, cookstove, or even a small candle.

Do you have questions or comments about this piece? Email them to us at [email protected] 

about the author

Brad Shannon

Brad Shannon is a cyclist, runner, triathlete; soccer coach, player and referee; gear / gadget lover; and storyteller. He’s a fan of dogs and the weather and craft beer scene in northern Colorado. His current favorite item is his 3D-printed Inconel bottle opener.

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