'Tis the season for frostbite

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - With temperatures expected to dip into single digits in Colorado over the next few days, UCHealth physicians are warning people to take precautions to prevent frostbite.

Frostbite is an injury – almost like a burn -- that occurs when the skin and tissue freezes after being exposed to extreme cold for too long. Most frostbite injuries occur on the fingers, toes, nose, cheeks, and ears. In most cases, the body part can be rewarmed to avoid long-term injury, but in severe cases, surgery or even amputation may be required.

Laura Madsen, RN, burn outreach coordinator for the Burn Center at UCHealth Metro, said people can protect against frostbite by dressing warmly. Several thin layers are better than a single bulky covering, she said. 

Other prevention tips include:

  • Mittens provide better protection than gloves
  • Boots and should not be tied tightly
  • If possible, go inside every 30 minutes to warm up
  • Pack your car with a safety kit that includes socks, mitten, hats, coats and blankets
  • Avoid drinking alcohol and smoking
  • Be especially careful when wind accompanies cold weather, as that will reduce the time for frostbite to set in
  • If clothing gets wet, quickly go inside and change to dry clothes

“Frostbite doesn’t only strike people who do extreme sports,” Madsen said. “If your car breaks down, you need protection.”

Signs and symptoms include:

  • Coldness, numbing, tingling and itching
  • Shivering, which is the earliest sign that the body is losing warmth
  • Discoloration of the skin from almost white/yellowish skin to a purplish color. More severe signs are blisters and pain on rewarming.
  • Mumbling, stumbling and loss of fine motor skills

Despite the recent unseasonably warm weather, the Burn Center has treated three frostbite cases so far this year. Last year, 25 patients came in for treatment, Madsen said.


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