Frostbite Can Happen Quickly if You're Not Careful

Frostbite Can Happen Quickly if You're Not Careful

If you were stuck in the Antarctic ice on the Russian research ship Akademik Shokalskiy waiting for an icebreaker to rescue you, chances are you’d be vigilant about protecting your skin from frostbite. But if you’re on a skiing holiday in Quebec or are a kid waiting for a school bus in Minneapolis, you need to take extra care when temperatures plummet. Young children, those not used to the cold, and anyone in temperatures well below freezing are at risk of frostbite on the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes.

When the skin gets cold, your body’s circulation/heat delivery system reduces flow to areas where blood can become cold—making those areas even colder! (That’s so your body can keep vital organs, like the heart and brain, toasty.) As your extremities become colder, you first feel pain, then burning, tingling, and finally numbness. Ice crystals may form in skin tissue, sometimes causing cell death that leads to amputation.

Luckily, before you get to that point, you may save damaged tissue by slowly rewarming it, using wraps or warm--never hot--water. But the best solution is to not risk frostbite in the first place.

To avoid forstbite, cover exposed skin with a wind-resistant, warm material. Wear multiple layers for insulation. Consider mittens (often warmer than gloves) and mitten liners, if it’s below 15°. Wear waterproof boots with warm socks. And move around to keep circulation going. Then you can ride to school—or navigate that black diamond ski run--with a smile on your face!

Medically reviewed in March 2020.

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