The signs of frostbite can be subtle so it is a good idea to educate yourself well in advance before you are ever unfortunate enough to encounter them. Last week we looked at the danger that hypothermia can prevent to hikers while out hiking on the trail and some of the key signs and symptoms of it.
In a similar manner, in today's post we’ll examine frost bite. We’ll look at what frost bite is, signs and symptoms of it, some basic treatment tips and, most importantly, prevention.
Frostbite is something I have first-hand experience of. When I was nine years old I entered the early stages of frost bite wearing the wrong footwear in snow. It was caught in time and remained in the first degree level. There was no permanent damage thankfully but I remember it all too well. It can sneak up on you and it is a miserable experience!
What is Frost Bite?
Similar to hypothermia, frostbite is another problem that can be brought on by cold weather. Hikers want to avoid it at all costs and as we move further into the colder winter months, it becomes more and more of a potential issue.
Frost bite sets in when parts of the body are exposed to extreme cold for long periods of time. When this occurs the body starts to move blood away from the extremities to protect the critical organs. This process coupled with lasting exposure results in damage to the skin and local tissues in the affected area due to freezing. Generally speaking, frost bite will start to appear in the extremities, like hands and feet, of the body first as there will be less blood circulation in those areas.
Signs and Symptoms
Similar to sun burn, frost bite is rated in levels of degree’s running from one to three. Each higher degree is of course more serious than the previous one and will therefore cause more pain and damage which can potentially be permanent.
First Degree (Aka Frost-nip)
This is only the beginning stages of frost bite and does not normally lead to any lasting damage if kept at this level. It affects the surface of the skin which becomes blotchy with the development of white, red or yellow patches which can also become numb and throbbing. Long term sensory damage can occur in the first degree e.g. loss of sensitivity to hot and cold in the skin.
The problem starts to get more serious as ongoing exposure from the first degree leads to the hardening and freezing of the skin. This will result in blisters which can become hard and turn black.
The numb and throbbing feeling of the skin will start to be replaced by a tingly sensation but as it progresses further, sensation gradually starts to fade. The impact while more serious, is still confined to the outer layers of the skin.
Frost bite of this degree should still heal although the aforementioned insensitivity to heat and cold is more likely to be permanent in the affected area.
Moving into third degree frostbite, the frostbitten area is impacted deeply resulting in deep tissue (muscles, tendons, etc.) freezing. The skin turns white or blue and is hard, blotchy and waxen. Deep frostbite is setting in at this stage and immediate medical attention is required. Again purple and or black blisters will develop.
Extreme frostbite can result in gangrene and the loss of body parts e.g. toes, fingers, etc.
Where possible remove any wet clothing from the individual. Try and keep them warm using blankets, coats, etc. If possible, try and submerge the affected area in warm water (101-104 degrees) until the skin regains a pinkish hue and color. For any areas that cannot be submerged, washing them repeatedly in the warm water may help.
Try not to rub the affected area. Dry it gently as required and wrap gently in clean gauze bandages. Where blisters have formed, do not rub or open them.
Where third degree of severe frostbite has set in, seek medical attention immediately!
As with all these things, prevention is way, way better than any attempt at treatment or cure! Some common sense things you can do to prevent getting frost bite are:
- If it’s really cold outside, don’t go hiking! The mountain’s will be there for you another day
- Remember, if it’s cold standing in your back garden, it will be even colder when you factor in altitude and wind chill. Don’t be misled by your immediate environment
- Dress appropriately! Wearing the right hiking gear is critical and always layer appropriately
- Keep an eye on your exposed skin for any signs of frost bite. As numbness is a significant factor, it can sneak up without you even realizing!
- Keep yourself dry and carry some extra clothes, in particular socks, etc. in your day pack
- If you get wet in freezing conditions, get your wet clothes off immediately! People often make the mistake of getting a foot wet in ice cold water and thinking everything will be OK if they keep moving. What they don’t realize is that with numbness in really cold temperatures, they won’t feel the water in their socks or clothes freezing to their skin. This is really nasty and you do not want to experience or even see this! Get dry clothes from your emergency spares. If you don’t have any spare clothes, at the very least get your wet clothes off and wring all the water out of them before putting them back on
In conclusion this post is not supposed to be a full treatise on the many dangers of frost bite while out hiking on the trail in winter, but rather an introduction to increase awareness. For most average day hikers, this should never really become an issue but if you get into difficulty, you just never know.
If you're stuck in bad snow and ice and can't walk out, it won't take long before the cold sets in. With that in ind, it's worthwhile to educate yourself a bit further on this topic to ensure that if you’re unfortunate enough to get into difficulty, you have some idea of what you need to do to minimize any permanent damage until you can get out of the situation as quickly and as safely as possible.
Remember, if you or someone in your party get's into difficulty and you're not sure what to do, call for help and ask for advice!
Have you any special tips to help avoid frostbite? Tell us in the comments below.