Stay active this winter, but avoid frostbite

Winter activities are now in full swing. In frigid climates, they include skiing, snowshoeing, and snowboarding. Many will try to keep up with outdoor walking, running, or cycling programs.

These sports now add the challenge of staying warm while being active. The goal is to avoid the serious damage of frostbite.

Frostbite results when skin becomes exposed to extreme cold. Prolonged exposure leads to freezing the skin and tissue below. Typically, frostbite affects the hands, feet, nose and ears. These body parts are furthest from the heart and most vulnerable to cold.

Physiologic conditions that lead to impaired circulation increase susceptibility to frostbite. Peripheral vascular disease and diabetes as well as caffeine and tobacco use can make people vulnerable to frostbite.

A condition known as Raynaud Phenomenon can be particularly dangerous with exposure to cold. This condition causes vasospasm in the small blood vessels of hands and feet in those affected. Cold will precipitate the spasm, resulting in diminished blood supply to tissues involved.

Frostbite can appear in two forms: superficial and deep. The superficial form causes burning, tingling and numbness. The affected areas appear white and frozen. The tissues retain some elasticity when pressure is applied. In deep frostbite, blood-filled blisters are found over hard frozen skin.

Frostbite can be avoided by dressing in layers and being certain to cover all exposed surfaces. New devices such as heated gloves and socks are very effective. Activated charcoal heat packets can be placed in gloves and shoes.

Treatment consists of warming the affected area and keeping it elevated to avoid swelling. Never warm a limb if there is a chance it will freeze again. Do not rub the skin since friction can cause further tissue damage. Bathing the injured area in warm water is the most effective method of rewarming.

Before heading out for a cold weather workout, be sure attire is appropriate. Don’t be fooled by football linemen who wear short sleeves while playing in arctic cold. Even they retreat to heated benches in between series of plays.

If you wish to learn more about frostbite, listen to the podcast at Norwich Bulletin or Backus Hospital.

Originally published January 29, 2008.

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