When I was a kid, my mom bundled me up, A Christmas Story–style, when temperatures even threatened to drop below freezing. She justified the 100 layers of thermals, snow pants, and scarves with a warning: Anything less, and I’d be at risk for frostbite. And just like with so many other things in life, Mom was right. Sigh.
While the whole frostbite threat may have seemed like a clever tactic to get you inside in time for dinner after hours devoted to building the perfect snowman, it’s a real thing—and it could seriously hurt your body. With the ridiculously cold temps that have already hit a large portion of the country this winter, some attention to the condition is totally warranted.
“Third-degree burns look a lot like frostbite, and fourth-degree frostbite can affect nerves down to the muscle and bone.” —Dr. Chris Hogrefe
Sports medicine and emergency medicine Chris Hogrefe, MD, told Vogue he saw a handful of people with frostbite come into the ER within a week at the Chicago hospital where he works. Usually the condition affects the cheeks, ears, nose, fingers, and toes, and if you feel numbness or notice a change in your skin color or texture to something rubbery or waxy-feeling, you should go to urgent care immediately, he said.
“We treat it a lot like burns; third-degree burns look a lot like frostbite, and fourth-degree frostbite can affect nerves down to the muscle and bone,” Dr. Hogrefe said.
So how can frostbite be prevented in this unbearable weather? Here are some ways to stop it in its tracks.
3 tips to prevent frostbite this winter.
1. Only warm up when you’re warming up for good
You might feel like it’s better to run into a coffeeshop to warm up for a bit before heading back out and finishing your long trek through the snow, but the back-and-forth actually isn’t good for your body.
According to Dr. Hogrefe, the extreme cold decreases your blood flow and blocks oxygen from reaching your body tissue, which can cause damage and pain. To avert more trauma, it’s best to prevent the rush of blood back to your tissue as your body starts to heat up again until you’re in a place you can warm up for good.
2. Avoid hot showers
After being out in the freezing cold, resist the urge to warm up in a steaming-hot shower. According to Dr. Hogrefe, when your body is extremely cold, you may not be able to tell if something is too hot. “It may sound counterintuitive, but if your hands and feet are numb, you may not notice when heat is burning your skin,” he said.
Make sure the temperature is mild—between 98 and 102 degrees Fahrenheit—and also be careful when using electric blankets.
3. Choose mittens over gloves
Sure, you won’t be able to use your smartphone—but at least you won’t lose any fingers. When it comes to protecting your body from the cold, mittens beat gloves by a landslide: “[They let] digits keep each other warm,” Jillian Savage, MD, told Vogue.
Additionally, choose loose layers—which allow your body to move freely—and a coat that’s waterproof. If you follow all these rules, the cold won’t even stand a chance.