How to Prevent, Identify and Treat Frostbite

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Frostbite on fingers
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Jack Frost nipping at your nose? Well, it’s that time of year to worry about getting nipped too hard by our cold natured friend. The colder weather makes me think of issues that I have to watch out for and one of them is frostbite. Frostbite can affect anyone and you don’t have to hike all the way up Mount Everest to feel its effects. As we think of prepping, one aspect we prepare for is bugging out or being without shelter due to societal collapse, natural weather event or some other calamity that causes major upheaval. With winter temperatures dropping, being outside could quickly cause cold injuries. Knowing how to prevent frostbite could be a valuable prepping skill you need to know if faced with that prospect.

The easiest thing to do is stay warm and dry and regulate your body temperature. Make sure you have proper cold weather equipment and you are able to reduce your exposure to the cold. That might prove impossible in some situations. Gloves are often overlooked when we think of prepper supplies but even with gloves, most are not designed to keep your fingers protected against every harsh environment. If wet, even the most expensive gloves will be no better at keeping your hands warm than a wet bag.

What are the symptoms of Frostbite?

Frostbite is an injury caused by the freezing of your skin and the underlying fluids and tissues. Frostbite is most common on the extremities or any typically unexposed areas of skin. Fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks or your chin are where you are most likely to get frostbite because when you are cold, the blood in your body retreats towards the core to keep the vital organs functioning and warm. Severe frostbite requires medical attention because it can literally destroy skin, tissues, even muscle and bones.

How to tell if you have frostbite

Severe Frostbite destroys tissue.
Nasty, huh? Severe Frostbite destroys tissue and that means it doesn’t always grow back.

The symptoms of frostbite include the following:

  • Initially cold skin and a prickling or tingling feeling. This can be felt in early, less severe forms and most of us have been so cold that we felt numb before.
  • Numbness
  • Discolored skin. It could be red, white, even blue or grey.
  • Hard or waxy looking skin
  • You could experience clumsiness or disorientation due to muscle and joint stiffness.
  • Blistering after your skin rewarms. This is a serious sign of frostbite.

Frostbite generally occurs in several stages and takes time depending on the temperature and your exposure to the cold.

Frostnip – Frostnip is the first stage of frostbite and is what most of us who have lived for any amount of time and been outdoors have experienced. With frostnip, you skin turns red and feels obviously very cold. Your skin could also become paler as in your fingertips which will lead to prickly feelings and numbness. When you begin to warm up you may feel pain but this passes and frostnip does not cause any permanent damage and is usually remedied with some warmer temperature and a nice mug of cocoa.

Superficial Frostbite – The second stage of frostbite is red skin that turns white or pale. As this happens, ice crystals may start to form in the tissue. There is no way you will know that this is happening of course and your skin may actually start to feel warm. If you get out of the cold at this point you may notice that your skin appears blue, purple or splotchy and will start to sting, burn and swell. Blisters may appear 24 to 36 hours later.

Severe Frostbite – The longer you are exposed to the cold, the effects of frostbite damage all layers of the skin including the tissues underneath. Numbness, loss of sensation including any pain or discomfort is a sign that your tissues have died essentially. Your joints or muscles may stop working and you will have large blisters form after you have warmed back up. This is the point that skin turns black, hard and you will start losing things that you used to have. This is not good and it’s very important to recognize the signs of frostbite early to prevent this from ever happening. You do not want to deal with any injuries during a grid down or bug out scenario, but frostbite could lead to worse problems. If you have signs of superficial or severe frostbite you should seek medical attention immediately.

Who is more at risk for developing frostbite?

There are some factors that will increase your risk for frostbite:

  • Medical conditions that affect your ability to feel or respond to cold. Diabetic Neuropathy is one that comes to mind so if you have people in your Prepping group who have diabetes, this is something to watch out for.
  • Dehydration – another reason to ensure you have plenty of water even when it’s cold outside and you don’t think you are losing any from sweat.
  • Alcohol or drug use – You do not want to be too stoned to know you are losing your fingers.
  • Previous frostbite or cold injuries. Once you have been frostbitten, you are more susceptible to the effect of cold again.
  • Infants and Seniors are less able to keep themselves warm.
  • High altitudes reduce the oxygen supply and increases the risk of frostbite.
Warm your hands by sticking them in your armpits.
Warm your hands by sticking them in your armpits.

How to treat frostbite?

Frostnip doesn’t require any treatment and usually just getting warm and dry will reduce any effects from the cold. The longer your exposure, the more risk you have of damage and complications from frostbite. Here are some ways to treat frostbite:

If you can seek shelter

  • Get out of the cold– yes, the simplest things are the best usually. Once you are inside someplace warm, remove wet clothing and dry exposed areas.
  • Gently rewarm areas that are in pain. You can soak hands and feet in warm (not hot) water. Water temperature between 98 and 108 is perfectly fine to restore warmth to your skin. The water temperature should only feel warm and you should have someone who hasn’t been affected test the temperature or you can stick an unexposed body part like an elbow in the water to test if you do not have a thermometer.

If you can’t get to shelter

  • You can warm your hands by sticking them in your armpits as close to the body as possible. We were taught to do this in the Army with our battle buddy and thankfully I never had to put that in place. If we were experiencing frostbite we were supposed to stick our hands in our buddy’s armpits or our feet on their belly. Can you imagine how much fun that would be?
  • If there is any chance you will be freezing again, don’t thaw out! This can exacerbate the condition.
  • Take pain medication like Advil, Motrin IB which should be in your first aid kit.
  • Don’t walk on your feet if they are frostbitten. You can cause more injury by breaking off broken dead pieces of your skin.

 

Medical Treatment of Frostbite

Assuming you are at a point that you can begin healing, begin with rewarming the skin. As this happens, the skin may turn soft and look reddish or purple. Slowly move the affected areas as you can begin to feel them again. Wrap the tissue loosely with sterile bandaging and elevate any areas to reduce swelling.

Severe cases of frostbite will destroy skin so amputations may be necessary. Again, this is not an injury you ever want to have but in a grid-down environment, make sure you do your best to avoid this.

 

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Bill
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Bill

Just a word about cold weather injuries.
Many years ago, four U.S. Army Soldiers died during Ranger school IN FLORIDA.
You don’t normally think about cold weather related deaths in the sunshine state but, the Florida swamps, in Feburary, these four men passed away from hypothermia.
It doesn’t need to be Maine or Vermont.

BobW
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BobW

An old friend was in the boat with those Ranger candidates when they died. The pain in his eyes while recalling those events a few weeks after left a lasting impression on me. A combination of issues led to their deaths by drowning. Hypothermia was the deciding factor. Severe stress, extreme sleep and food deprivation, combined with river operations in rainy conditions and temps in the mid 30’s pushed all the Soldiers to the brink of human endurance. Essentially, their core temperatures dropped to the point of falling unconscious, laying on the side of an inflatable boat. Four fell into… Read more »

Pat
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Pat

Great points and sober reminders Bob and Bill. Thank you very much!

usmarinestanker
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usmarinestanker

Wonderful article, very easy to understand. I would caution use of pain killers before you begin warming up because it might make you unable or less able to determine the amount of damage you’re experiencing. Pain is a good thing because it tells us something is wrong. Once you’re ready to get on the mend, don’t use aspirin (Bayer, Excedrin, Bufferin, Anacin, Alka-Seltzer, Ascriptin, Asperbuf, Aspergum, BC Powder, Doan’s pills, Easprin, Ecotrin, Empirin, Goody’s Powder, Halfprin, Measurin, St. Joseph, or Vanquish) or other “blood thinners” because they prevent platelets from forming blood clots. If your injury is so bad that… Read more »

Pat
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Pat

Excellent points Matt. I should clarify that to indicate the severity of Frostbite and the injuries before taking any medication. With blood loss you definitely don’t want to be thinning your blood.

tharp
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tharp

Ibuprofen Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) block the arachidonic acid pathway and decrease production of prostaglandins and thromboxanes.28 These mediators can lead to vasoconstriction, dermal ischemia, and further tissue damage. No studies have directly demonstrated that any particular anti-inflammatory agent or dosing is clearly beneficial to outcome. Aspirin has been proposed as an alternative and is used in many parts of the world for anti-inflammatory and platelet inhibition effects. One rabbit ear model study showed a 23% tissue survival with aspirin vs control.29 However, aspirin theoretically blocks the production of certain prostaglandins that are beneficial to wound healing,30 and the authors… Read more »

Nicole
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Nicole

A book I read months ago taught me a little about hypothermia but frostbite is also one of those conditions that I haven’t considered from a prepping standpoint and I’m glad you brought it up because that’s one of many injuries that we all likely underestimate but could mean life or death in a SHTF situation that causes people to have to bug out.Thanks for getting us to think about scenarios that are just as important today as they would be ten times more important in a bug-out situation.

Pat
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Pat

Thank you very much for reading Nicole!