Use caution when exercising in the cold. AP Photo/Peter M. Fredin
With cold weather upon us, it is important to remember to dress appropriately for outdoor activities. Without proper planning, a fun outdoor activity can easily turn into a case of frostnip or frostbite.
Local cooling of the body can result in tissue damage ranging from superficial to deep. Frostnip is caused by exposure to a damp, freezing cold. Frostbite, on the other hand, is caused by exposure to dry temperatures well below freezing. Low freezing temperatures may cause ice crystals to form between or within cells and may eventually destroy the cells. Tissue damage occurs, blood clots form, and blood may be directed away from the injury site to ensure the survival of healthy tissue.
Frostnip involves ears, nose, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes. High wind, severe cold, or both usually cause frostnip. The skin initially appears very firm, with cold, painless areas that may peel or blister in 24 to 72 hours. Affected areas can be treated early by firm, sustained pressure of the hand (without rubbing), blowing hot breath on the spot, or, if the injury is to the fingertips, by placing them in the armpits.
Chilblains results from prolonged and constant exposure to cold for many hours. There is skin redness, swelling, tingling, and pain in the toes and fingers. This condition is caused by problems of peripheral circulation and can be avoided by preventing further cold exposure.
Superficial frostbite involves only the skin and subcutaneous tissue. The skin appears pale, hard, cold, and waxy. When rewarming, the superficial frostbite will feel numb at first, then will sting and burn. Later the area may produce blisters and be painful for several weeks.
Deep frostbite is a serious injury indicating tissues that are frozen. This is a medical emergency requiring immediate hospitalization. The tissue is initially cold, hard, pale or white, and numb. Rapid rewarming is required, including hot drinks, heating pads, or hot water bottles that are 100 to 110 degrees fahrenheit. During rewarming, the tissue will become blotchy red, swollen, and extremely painful. Later, the injury may become gangrenous, causing tissue loss.
Prevention is key to avoiding cold injuries. Outdoor apparel should be lightweight and should consist of a material that will permit the free passage of sweat away from the skin. Always dress in layers, as clothes can be easily added or taken off to adjust for changing temperatures and possible dampness from sweat. If breathing cold air becomes distressful, use a ski face mask or cover the mouth and nose with a free-hanging cloth.
Keep yourself and your loved ones safe from serious cold injuries this winter. Be aware of the weather conditions and be sure to dress accordingly.