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Frostbite Treatment and Prevention: FAQ

An expert offers tips for preventing and treating frostbite.

What are the treatments for frostnip/frostbite? continued...

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.

How can I stay safe?

Extreme cold, high winds, wet clothing, and poor planning all contribute to cold-weather injury.

If you are planning outdoor activities, check weather forecasts frequently and don't ignore warnings about storms and other inclement conditions. Avoid sports activities -- such as hiking or camping in freezing weather -- that are beyond your experience level.

Also:

  • Wear adequate clothing. Tallman recommends wearing several layers of clothing, with the innermost layer being a fabric that wicks moisture from the skin. The outer layer should serve as a windbreaker.
  • Mittens provide more protection than gloves. Wearing two pairs of socks is advised, with wool recommended for the outer later. And don't forget a hat and scarf that covers the ears.
  • Get moving. Increasing physical activity will help your body stay warm. Wiggle fingers and toes if they start to feel numb.
  • Don't drink alcohol before or during cold weather exposure, since alcohol may prevent you from realizing that your body is becoming too cold.
  • Don't smoke. Smoking constricts blood vessels and increases the risk for frostbite.

"It is a good idea to keep a cold-weather emergency kit in your car with extra layers of clothing, a blanket, and some of those chemical hand warmers," Tallman says. "It is important to plan ahead and be prepared."

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Reviewed on December 24, 2008

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