When the body is exposed to cold for an extended period of time, the blood vessels constrict and circulation slows. As a result, the extremities (ears, nose, hands and feet) begin to freeze.
In the early stages, the affected surface becomes red, then painful; skin soon begins to tingle and burn. Never assume that the worst is over when the pain stops. In fact, in the later stages of frostbite, skin becomes so numb that a loss of feeling occurs.
To fight frostbite, the body sends blood to warm up the affected areas. Since the blood cannot reach the frozen surfaces, however, the blood vessels become engorged and damaged. At this stage, skin can turn white or greyish and start to itch. Red patches and swelling may also develop.
Although frostbite causes severe itchiness, you should never scratch the affected surface. To warm up, you should:
- Get out of the cold as soon as possible.
- Gently remove any clothing covering the affected area.
- Use your breath to warm up the skin.
- Cover the area with your hands or a warm cloth.
Never rub or massage frostbitten skin as this could damage the tissues. Do not warm up the skin with hot water or a hot water bottle, since this too could aggravate the lesions.
The swelling and pain will generally disappear within a few days. After an episode, frostbitten areas will remain vulnerable.
Here are a few tips to protect yourself from cold and dampness:
- Dress in layers.
- Wear warm boots.
- Make sure your coat is water-repellent.
- Ensure children have properly fitting clothing. (We all know how quickly they outgrow their clothing. Tight clothing can alter blood flow, making their fingers and toes more vulnerable to freezing).
When the wind chill factor makes temperatures drop to -30 ºC, time outdoors should be kept short. And if the thermometer hits -40 ºC, why not just stay inside, where it is toasty and warm!
For more tips, talk to your pharmacist!