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Frostbite Treatment and Prevention: FAQ

An expert offers tips for preventing and treating frostbite.

Who is at risk?

Anyone can end up with frostbite if exposed to frigid conditions for too long. Naturally, those who work outside in the cold or engage in cold-weather sports may be vulnerable if they aren't adequately prepared.

But some people are also more susceptible to extremely cold weather than others, including:

  • The very young and the very old.
  • Diabetes patients and people with other medical conditions associated with poor circulation.
  • People with heart conditions who take beta-blockers, which decrease the flow of blood to the skin.
  • Those who smoke and/or drink alcohol while exposed to cold weather.

Wearing wet clothes, not wearing enough clothes, and exposure to high winds increase vulnerability.

Even people who think they are prepared for the cold weather may not be, Tallman says. He recalls one Browns game last season which started in the rain and ended in an icy snowstorm.

"Many of the tailgaters got pretty soaked before the game and then when the temperatures dropped they got into trouble," he says.

What are the treatments for frostnip/frostbite?

Get out of the cold and get out of wet clothing as soon as possible and remove all constrictive jewelry and clothing. Then immerse the affected area in warm, but not hot, water.

If water is not available, warm the tissue with body heat. For example, warm your hands by tucking them into your armpits and warm your nose, ears, or face by covering them with dry hands.

"Warm water is the gentlest and safest way to warm frostbitten skin," Tallman says.

Do not:

  • Thaw the frostbitten tissue if there is a chance that it will refreeze before you get medical attention, as this increases the likelihood of permanent damage.
  • Rub or massage frostbitten skin or disturb blisters, which can further damage tissue.
  • Use direct dry heat, like heating pads or a campfire to thaw frostbitten tissue.

Many people with frostbite may also be experiencing hypothermia (body temperature that is too low), which can be deadly. This is why it is so important to seek medical attention immediately.

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