Frostbite – How to Avoid It, Signs it is Starting, What to Do

It’s been said that the worst enemy Napoleon’s army battled during the War of 1812 was frostbite and hypothermia. Soldiers forced to march across Russia during winter died by the thousands. At this time, there with no understanding of how to treat their injuries. While this may be an extreme example, frostbite is a dangerous condition that can be life threatening.

Frostbite’s name makes it sound much more innocuous than it is – the condition occurs when your skin and tissue freeze resulting in a host of complications, including death and amputation. It is easy to think that you won’t be impacted by frostbite, but the condition is frequently seen in mountaineers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

Stages and Symptoms

Your “skin” is a part of your integumentary system and consists of complex layers of tissue. Depending on the amount of time and degree that the skin is exposed to cold temperatures, the layers of the skin are impacted differently. Frostbite is the injury that results from the tissue freezing.

  • Frostnip is the first stage of frostbite and probably something that you have experienced. The Mayo Clinic describes this stage as mild, and describes the top layer of the skin as becoming pale or becoming red and extremely cold. An indicator that your experiencing frostnip if you experience pain as you warm yourself. This mild stage does not cause permanent injury.
  • Should your skin continue to be exposed to the cold, superficial frostnip will occur. Here, the skin will be numb and waxy, but as a deeper layer of tissue is affected – ice crystal may form. This more serious condition will result in blistering a day or two after the skin once warm. During warming the skin can appear with blue or purple.
  • Deep frostnip is extremely serious and described as the third stage of frostbite. In this stage, multiple tissue layers have been impacted and possibly blood vessels, tendons, and muscles. While there will not be pain or blistering that occur in the other stages, there is a high frequency of infection and/or loss of limbs.

First Step: Preventing Frostbite

How do you treat frostbite? Well, the first step is to avoid it all together. The most important thing you can do is plan ahead. For instance, if you are hiking, trail running, hunting during the fall and winter season in location you aren’t 100% familiar with, bring the gear you need if you become disoriented and have to hunker down for the night. Same goes for driving long distances in rural conditions. Do you have the supplies you need in your car should you become stranded until assistance arrives?

Let’s conclude with some more obvious ways to avoid the condition:

  • Monitor how long you will be in cold conditions and dress accordingly. This includes multiple layers and warm accessories.
  • Accessories are crucial – the most vulnerable part of your body in terms of frostbite is your toes, fingers, nose, and ears. Wool socks, gloves, boots, and headgear that covers your ears, nose, and chin will keep you warm.
  • Stay dry – this is incredibly important as water moves heat out of the body 25x faster than under dry conditions.
  • Assess yourself for signs of frostnip, this indicates that it is time to move to a warmer location.

How to Treat Frostbite

Treating frostbite is difficult in the field, however your options expand once you’re receiving medical care in the hospital. In the prehospital setting though, the most important thing is to not warm yourself or a patient unless you are able to keep warm. The process of warming damaged tissue, only to exposure it to cold conditions again, will result in worse damage.

If you are able to remove the patient from the cold conditions, remove all wet clothing and begin to warm the patient avoiding direct heat. Do not place skin in direct contact with heating pads or other sources of heat. The Mayo Clinic provides specific instructions for treating the condition, “Soak hands or feet in warm water — 99 to 108 F (37 to 42 C) — for 15 to 30 minutes. If a thermometer isn’t available, test the water by placing an uninjured hand or elbow in it — it should feel very warm, not hot. Don’t rewarm frostbitten skin with direct heat, such as a stove, heat lamp, fireplace or heating pad. These can cause burns.”

If superficial or deep frostnip is suspected, professional medical intervention is needed immediately.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Caitlin Fitzgerald

Caitlin Fitzgerald

While Caitlin is currently a full-time writer, she spent the last few years on call as a Firefighter/EMT and enjoyed every minute of it. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and is currently working toward an associate degree in the health sciences to enhance her EMS skills.
Caitlin Fitzgerald
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