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Facts on frostbite

By Erin Fritz, APRN CNP, nurse practitioner at Children’s Minnesota 

Minnesota winters offer many outdoor activities. While we can appreciate the fun of sledding, the thrill of skiing or the labor-intensive task of shoveling, these activities aren’t without risk. Prolonged exposure to the cold puts our skin at risk for frostbite, or a lesser version known as frostnip.

What is frostbite?

Frostbite is the damage to a body part caused by cold. While many instances are mild, frostbite can be severe. Typically the cold exposure occurs over minutes or hours, but frostbite can be instantaneous if exposed to cold metal. Frostbite is most common on the ears, nose, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes.

What should I watch for?

It’s important to recognize the signs of frostbite as quickly as possible. Frostnip is the first stage of frostbite and includes very cold, pale or red skin that may be numb or tingling. Due to the numbness, the affected body part may feel clumsy or be difficult to move. During the second stage of frostbite, skin may turn gray or white, may begin to feel warm and can lead to blisters after the skin is re-warmed. Severe frostbite affects all layers of the skin and tissue that lies below, and the skin may become completely numb. During severe frostbite, the affected skin will likely blister after being re-warmed and can turn black and hard with permanent tissue and nerve damage.

What to do if I am concerned?

Once symptoms of frostbite or frostnip are identified, the affected area needs to be rapidly re-warmed. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that the water used to re-warm the skin should be warm, but not hot. Avoid rubbing the area as this could make the pain and tissue damage worse. Pain is commonly a factor with frostbite, and can be managed with over-the-counter pain medications or by health care professionals.

How can frostbite be prevented?

Most importantly, frostbite easily can be prevented. Limit the amount of time spent outdoors during cold temperatures. Dress in layers and cover all areas of uncovered skin with a hat, mittens, face mask and goggles. Warm boots are important. And finally, stay dry. If clothing does get wet, seek shelter and remove wet clothes immediately.

Springtime will bring warmer temperatures. But until then, dress warmly, stay dry and prevent frostbite.

Erin P. Fritz, APRN CNP
Erin P. Fritz, APRN CNP