Hiking - Knowledge

Trekking Basics: Identify the Signs of Frostbite and Treat them Correctly

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Have you ever been hiking to an extremely cold area and have felt your toes or arms or nose going numb? Well, that’s frostbite and can happen to anyone in cold areas when the body part isn’t covered properly. But, do you know what is frostbite and how to treat frostbite? Well, frostbite is a potentially serious condition which affects the skin but is treatable. Just as water turns to ice in extremely low temperatures, your hands, fingers, toes, feet and even your nose and ears can freeze. Being further away from your core, they are the very first organs to get affected by decreased blood flow in response to cold. How soon it would happen depends upon how windy and cold it is outside. It's essential to know about the causes, symptoms, signs of frostbite and the ways to treat and prevent it easily. 

Read on to know:

  • What Causes Frostbite
  • Different Stages of Frostbite 
  • Major Signs of Frostbite 
  • How to Treat Frostbite
  • Re-warming Treatment: Do’s and Don’ts 
  • How Can You Avoid Frostbite 
  • Summing Up 

What Causes Frostbite

As is a known fact, blood helps in carrying oxygen to all the parts of the body so that the tissues can remain healthy. When the body is exposed to excessive cold (below 5 degrees F, -15C) and is not adequately covered or warmed), the blood vessels constrict themselves as a protective response. This way the blood and the oxygen are diverted away from the extremities to your vital organs to keep the body alive. 

Gradually the lack of oxygen and blood supply to the skin may begin to cause damage to the cells. Icy crystals form and the blood vessels and cells become damaged in the areas of the body that have been affected by frostbite. There are also chances of blood clotting in small blood vessels which can further reduce the chances of oxygen and blood reaching the affected tissues. 

Anyone is susceptible to frostbite, and this condition can occur when people are not sufficiently protected when exposed to extremely cold environments. The longer your skin remains exposed to the cold temperatures, the higher the chances of getting frostbite. The risk is higher when the cold temperature is accompanied by chilly wind which can bring the temperature further down or you are at a rather high altitude. The sooner the treatment for frostbite is started, the better the chances for recovering would be. 

Frostbite at high altitudes (source)

Different Stages of Frostbite 

Frostbite occurs in various stages and depending on the severity, treatment is done.

STAGE 1: Frostnip (First-degree frostbite that affects just the epidermis)

Frostnip is the very first stage of frostbite and in this mild condition; the skin tends to turn very pale or red and feels extremely cold. Continued exposure often leads to numbness and prickling in the affected area. As the skin warms up slowly, you might feel a sensation of pain or tingling. Frostnip doesn't damage the skin permanently. It is a temporary condition which heals well when taken care of properly. 

STAGE 2: Superficial Frostbite (Second-degree frostbite that affects the epidermis and part of the dermis)

Superficial frostbite is the second stage of frostbite wherein the skin appears pale or white. Some of the frostbite symptoms are that the skin might appear to be soft but a few icy crystals may form in the tissue. If your skin begins to feel warm, then it’s a sign of serious skin involvement. If you attempt to treat this kind of frostbite with rewarming, the skin’s surface might appear mottled (usually tends to turn blue or purple). A burning or stinging situation or swelling might also crop up. After about 24 to 36 hours of rewarming the skin, a fluid-filled blister might appear. 

STAGE 3: Severe Frostbite

In cases of severe frostbite, all the layers of the skin along with the underlying tissues are affected. The signs of frostbite of this kind would be numbness, losing the sensation of cold or excessive discomfort in the affected area. Muscles and joints might not work until proper treatment is done. After about 24 to 48 hours of rewarming the skin, large blisters usually appear. As the tissues die afterward, the area turns black and extremely hard. 

different stages of frost bite
Different Stages of Frostbite (source)

Major Signs of Frostbite 

As a hiker, you might have seen it before but if you haven't noticed it before, it’s not surprising. This is because the signs of frostbite are very subtle and can easily be overlooked. Depending on the severity, the symptoms of frostbite would be feeling of cold and stiffness in the affected area, like fingers, nose or toes. Feelings of numbness, burning or stinging can also occur. Throbbing, pain, burning or electric current-like sensation might be felt when the area is re-warmed. The appearance of the skin varies depending on how severe a degree of frostbite is present, and on how much of the body has been affected. We have listed down the frostbite stages based on its severity:

Stage I

  • Pale yellow skin
  • Skin turns itchy, pricking and gives a burning sensation

Stage II

  • Marble-like skin
  • Blistered skin filled with fluid or blood
  • Stiff muscles causing clumsiness

Stage III

  • Skin is cold and hard
  • Skin colour changes to blue and black

Generally, frostbite is diagnosed by considering the typical frostbite symptoms in an individual who has been exposed to extreme cold weather. The thing with frostbite is that it can happen really quickly and hence one needs to be aware of all the signs and symptoms. If you protect shield yourself from the cold properly and can efficiently recognize the early symptoms of frostbite, you would be able to prevent severe conditions and probable damages caused by it. Special scans are at times used to evaluate the frostbite’s degree and to ascertain how much tissue has been damaged.

signs of frostbite
Different stages of frostbite (source)

How to Treat Frostbite

It is decisive to begin the treatment as soon as you notice the signs of frostbite. Frostnip or first-degree frostbite can be treated easily with at-home techniques but other degrees of frostbite need to be assessed and treated by medical professionals. If not done, there are high chances of nerve damage or possible infection. Listed below are the ways on how you can get rid of frostbite:

  1. When you notice frostbite, firstly warm up your body. Also, if you can, go into a warm room and remove any piece of restrictive or wet clothing. Else,  if you are on a hike, light a fire and warm the affected areas. 
  2. Next check your body temperature. If it is too low, then that could be a sign of hypothermia. Seek emergency medical help if you suspect hypothermia. It is a condition in which the body tends to lose heat faster than it can be produced.
  3. The area that has been affected must be elevated so as to reduce the swelling. You could take over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen for inflammation. If the area has turned black, wrap it up in sterile gauze and look for emergency help immediately.
  4. If you are in wet clothes, change to dry clothes immediately. This way you will restrict further heat loss from the body. 
  5. Remove jewelry from your fingers, toes or any fancy material which could tighten the affected area. 
  6. If your feet are frostbitten, then avoid walking on it as it can cause fractures. 
  7. Due to frostbite, you can easily be affected by dehydration. So rehydrate your body with water, warm drinks. 
  8. Re-warming is the best possible frostbite treatment, but that needs to be done correctly. You must seek medical attention if there is increased swelling, pain or redness in the affected areas. Fever and unexplained symptoms aren’t good signs and need immediate attention. 

Understand that severe frostbite is a serious thing and frostbite treatment needs to be started as soon as the signs are noticed. 

Re-warming Treatment: Do’s and Don’ts 

Re-warming the affected area must be started as soon as possible. When you come back from a hike and notice that you have frostbite, do not try to warm up the affected area at a campfire or in the tent especially if you have to hike further. But, if you do not have to go any further, you could start the re-warming process. Drinking a warm drink like soup, tea or coffee can aid in beginning the rewarming process. 

Rapid rewarming is done often in a warm water bath followed by the removal of dead tissues. The affected area needs to be immersed in warm water (make sure that isn’t hot) for about 20 to 45 minutes. This needs to be done continuously until the area feels warm and regains the lost sensation. The recommended water temperature is somewhere 99-108 degrees Fahrenheit. 

While you are trying to rewarm the affected area, that part might begin to change colour, blisters may appear or even swell up.  However, this is normal and you must never try to cut it away in order to prevent any chances of infection. In case blisters appear, cover it up with a clean and sterile cloth and seek further medical help. 

Avoid the following things when you are treating frostbite:

  • Refrain from rubbing or massaging the affected area 
  • Avoid walking if you have frostbitten feet
  • If there’s a chance that you would be exposed to extreme cold conditions again, avoid warming up the affected area. This is because warming and then refreezing the skin can cause severe damage to the tissues. 
  • Avoid applying dry heat like that from fire, a heating pad, radiator or a blow dryer to the affected area. This is because the frostbitten area is completely numb and is thereby at a very high risk of getting burnt. 
  • While treatment for frostbite is going on, avoid smoking or drinking alcohol. These substances can interfere with the blood circulation and hence cause further harm. 
frostbite treatment
Immerse your hand in warm water (source)

How Can You Avoid Frostbite 

Follow the tips mentioned below to safeguard yourself from frostbites. 

1. Wear Layered Clothing 

The chances of frostbite increase with extremely tight clothing. People often tend to think that by wearing tight clothing they can keep themselves warm. But, at high altitude and in extremely cold conditions, this isn’t how things work. You need to wear various loose layers of clothing which would allow the heat of your body to get around easily. Generally, three layers would be enough. The very first layer should be made up of material which would keep you dry. The second layer should be made up of an insulating material like fleece or wool and would go over the first layer. The third and the final layer should be water and windproof and would be worn on the top. 

2. Pick Insulated Gloves or Mittens 

Fingers are one of the areas of the body that are prone to get frostbitten if you do not protect it from the cold. Hence, when you are visiting extremely cold areas, wear insulated gloves or mittens. Do not take them off to send a text or make a call. If you must, purchase a pair of gloves with textured fingertips which allow you to swipe the mobile screen. 

3. Make Sure Your Head, Ears, and Feet are Covered 

When packing for your winter hike, make sure that you keep a warm woollen cap which would cover your head and ears. This would ensure that your ears are warm and protected. Also, remember that your feet are extremely vulnerable to frostbite. Wear a pair of socks which resist moisture and top it with a pair of wool socks. Also, remember to pack waterproof boots which cover up your ankles and keep them warm. 

4. Strip Your First Layer for Few Minutes if You are Sweating 

Not many people know this but wet clothing either because of sweating or because of snow increases the chances of frostbite in an individual. If you feel that you are sweating, consider stripping down the first layer of clothing for a little while to cool down. Also, make sure that snow doesn’t find a way into your outfit. 

signs of frostbite
Do's and Don'ts for frostbite (source)

Summing Up 

Usually, people begin to notice considerable changes with proper treatment at home. However, if you still do not feel any sensation in the affected area or if your skin tends to turn black or dark grey, it would be best to seek emergency medical care immediately. Whatever you do, never take frostbites lightly as they are serious skin conditions. 

Have you ever experienced a condition like this before? Do you have any additional tips that you wish to share with us? If yes, feel free to do in the comment section below. We are always looking forward to hearing from you.

Until then, happy and safe hiking fellas!

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