Damage to the skin and tissue that occurs as a result of exposure to extreme cold is known as frostbite. It usually affects the extremities -- the fingers, toes and face -- as the body tries to keep up its core temperature, and it can develop more quickly than most people realize. When the temperature falls below 20 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind is blowing, frostbite can happen in minutes.
Symptoms and Complications
As body parts are exposed to cold, the body shifts blood away from the extremities and toward the heart and lungs. That leaves extremities open to frostbite. The first sensation is a numb feeling in the affected body part. This eventually progresses to the body part hardening, as if it's frozen. Gray or yellow patches may appear on the skin with superficial frostbite, or it may take on a waxy appearance with deep frostbite. The skin may turn blue or purple with blisters as deep frostbite sets in.
Frostbite can become quite serious. Body tissues actually freeze when they are frostbitten. A gangrene infection can occur in the tissues of the affected body part, and amputation may be needed to save other parts of the body. If the frostbite is accompanied by hypothermia, it can lead to a heart attack.
Prevention and Treatment
The best way to prevent frostbite is to be sensible about going out in the cold. Avoid exposure to extreme cold whenever possible. If you do need to go outside in the cold, wear sensible clothing. This includes multiple layers; mittens or gloves; a stocking cap, scarf or mask; and possibly two layers of socks. Avoid getting wet, and if you do get wet, get out of the cold in order to dry off and warm up. Also check yourself for signs of frostbite frequently when exposed to the cold.
If you suspect frostbite, get out of the cold immediately, get warm and dry. Then soak the affected area in warm water for 30 to 45 minutes until it feels warm and sensation returns. Then get a medical professional to assess the situation and recommend the next needed steps.
SOURCES: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons; American Osteopathic Association