As a kid, my mom always bundled me up A Christmas Story–style when temperatures even threatened to drop below freezing. She dressed me in 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.
How to properly treat frostbite
With how quickly frostbite can strike, even all the prep in the world sometimes can’t save you. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are three stages to be aware of:
- Frostnip—the mildest form—involves numbness, pain, and a pins-and-needles sensation in the skin;
- Superficial frostbite includes red skin that turns white or pale, warm-feeling skin, burning, swelling, and blisters
- Deep frostbite turns your skin white or bluish-gray and involves losing the sensation in the area, as well as large blisters
If you only experience frostnip, you’re in luck. There’s no permanent damage to the skin and you should be fine after you get somewhere cozy and allow your body’s temperature to increase. One of the best ways to do so is to rewarm the area in a warm bath for 15 to 30 minutes. Afterward, you can apply aloe vera gel a few times a day for its soothing powers.
With superficial or deep frostbite, on the other hand, it’s recommended that you head to the emergency room as soon as you experience any signs or symptoms. According to the Cleveland Clinic, once you arrive, the medical staff will focus on warming the area, test your blood flow, give you medicine to prevent infection and reduce pain, and—if it’s bad enough—perform surgery to remove any dead skin and tissue. Cold weather doesn’t mess around, folks.
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