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How to Treat Frostbite

First Things First

You can recognize frostbite by its color. Frostbitten fingers or toes will first be bright red. Then they'll turn gray, and then stark, icy white. (Darker skin will ultimately become an ashy gray color.)

Frostbite is the cold kissing cousin of hypothermia. It's quite common and almost never life-threatening (although it can be serious enough for a person to lose part of a limb!). It “loves” cold winter weather, especially when low temperatures are combined with a cold wind or wet conditions.

Some body parts are more susceptible to frostbite than others. As you might guess, the extremities are most at risk because they are more exposed to extreme weather conditions. By extremities, we mean the nose, ears, fingers, toes, and chin. You don't wear that ski mask, thick heavy socks, and insulated mittens for nothing! You'll know you are suffering from frostbite when the affected body part starts to tingle or ache slightly, and eventually becomes numb.

Before You Put the Band-Aid On

You might be tempted to massage the body part in question, thinking you'll warm it with your touch. Don't do that. Massage can cause tissue damage to frostbitten areas. And, as a matter of fact, if there's a chance that the ear or toe or whatever will refreeze before help arrives on the scene, don't even attempt to thaw. Thawing and refreezing is worse for your body than leaving the frostbite alone for the moment!

Frostbite first aid treatment is easy to follow. As soon as you recognize its telltale symptoms, immediately begin this treatment procedure. If you get help quickly, loss of limbs can be avoided!

  1. Call for medical help immediately.
  2. Get the person in from the cold as quickly as possible and remove any wet or icy clothing.
  3. Protect the frozen area of the body, “thawing” it out with lukewarm water. If water isn't available, use a warm, woolen blanket or natural body heat. (For example, you could put frostbitten fingers into the armpits—if you could stand it.) Do not use a hair dryer, as it is too hot.
  4. Within half an hour, feeling will return—and with it will come a lot of pain. The area will also become red and swollen. Although this might seem horrible, it is a good thing. It's a sign that blood is beginning to circulate in the area again.
  5. Once the body part is thawed, keep it warm, dry, and clean until you see a physician.
  6. If blisters appear, apply an antibacterial ointment and a loose, sterile dressing.

More on: First Aid


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to First Aid Basics © 1996 by Stephen J. Rosenberg, M.D. and Karla Dougherty. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit Amazon's web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

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