December 19, 2010

Dealing with Frostbite and Hypothermia

Frostbite is a serious condition that, in extreme cases, can lead to loss of limb and even death.  Most people do not really understand frostbite, or the proper method of dealing with it.  It is wise to be aware of the fact that the human body is made up of primarily water.  This water is trapped or held in our tissues.  When they are exposed to extremely cold temperatures, the water trapped in these tissues can freeze.  If left in this condition long enough, the tissue will die (frank necrosis), which could lead to amputation of the affected area.

 Identification of Frostbite

Most people think that frostbite is a painful condition.  In fact, the pain is a symptom that precedes frostbite.  When an affected extremity suffers frostbite, it becomes numb.  As tissue is exposed to extreme cold, it will look cold and bluish red and it will hurt; this is not frostbite.  When the pain subsides and the color of the extremity appears white, you are in the beginning stages of frostbite.


Before we begin explain how to treat frostbite, you should know there are certain things you should NOT do.  Those things that would seem common sense or ‘natural’ can actually cause more damage to the affected areas.

DON’T rub the affected area or massage to attempt to ‘get the blood flowing’.  The tissues in the frostbitten area have had their water frozen.  If you massage or rub the area, the tiny ice crystals will cut or shred the tissue on the microscopic level.  This could take a mild case of frostbite and turn it into a condition where amputation is necessary.

DON’T place the affect area(s) under hot water or another direct heat source.  While this might seem wise, you can actually do more harm this way.  The victim of the frostbite will not be able to feel properly.  You can actually burn them without their knowledge.  Another reason to avoid direct heat is there is no way to guarantee that all of the tissue will ‘thaw’ evenly this way.  You may have one area responding and another area unresponsive.  This causes more stress on the body than is necessary.

DO seek professional medical attention as soon as possible.

DO try to warm the victim gradually through ingesting warm (not hot) beverages. 

DO run room temperature or standard body temperature water over the affected area.  Since hands, fingers, toes, and feet are the most common body parts to suffer frostbite, you can place warm water in a bowl and submerge the affected digits in this water.  The water temperature should be between 75 degrees F and 100 degrees F.  You should make every effort to keep the water temperature as constant as possible.  This will require monitoring the water and refilling with warm water as the bowl water cools.  If the victim is going to be exposed to the cold again, do not begin treatment.  Wait until you are certain that they will not be exposed to the extreme cold again before treating frostbite.

DO gently wrap the affected area in sterile cotton or wool.  This is to retain any heat the body will generate on its own.

General Treatment for Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a condition in which the victim suffers a drop in core body temperature.  It is mentioned here, because of the likelihood that the person suffering frostbite will also be suffering from hypothermia.  Hypothermia can be a killer.  Improper treatment of hypothermia can cause death in extreme cases.

Think Inside Out

When the body is exposed to extreme cold, it will start to protect the most vital body functions and areas by concentrating blood flow in these areas and shutting down the blood flow to the ‘less essential’ areas.  This means that the body will concentrate its heating efforts on the core at the expense of the extremities.  When you warm the body in hypothermic treatment, most people will be concerned with how cold their hands, arms, feet, and legs feel.  The blood in these extremities is very cold, if circulation from these extremities is restored too quickly, the cold blood could be too much of a shock to the heart and potentially cause a heart attack.

Try to warm the core of the body first.  Warm liquids, blankets, and heat applied to the core of the body will warm the core and then the body will begin to restore normal function and warm the extremities.  If the person is able, try to keep them moving and exerting energy.  Exercise is a great way to warm the body.  It is always wise to contact medical professionals in cases of hypothermia and frostbite.  It is better to be safe than sorry.  If you are unsure whether or not the person has frostbite, you should take them to a doctor just to be safe.

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