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Winter's Nip Can Be Brutal

Tips for avoiding frostbite when you're out in the cold

SUNDAY, Jan. 25, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Be it on the ski slopes, the skating pond or just hiking in the open air, your worst enemy in winter can be frostbite.

The condition happens when the skin freezes because of cold, wet clothes, strong winds or a combination of the two, says the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP). Your most vulnerable spots are your extremities and those parts of the body that are exposed to the elements: your toes, fingers, earlobes, cheeks and nose.

Certain individuals are also at more risk than others. People taking beta blockers, which decrease the flow of blood to the skin, for instance; smokers; people with diabetes; people with circulation problems, as well as the very old and the very young.

If you catch frostbite early enough and take appropriate measures, you may soon forget it ever happened. However, in extreme cases, it can lead to amputations and even death.

The first signs are patches of skin that look yellow or white and which are numb to the touch. If the spot warms up, you might feel itching or burning and it might become red or swollen. More advanced stages involve blistering and hardened skin.

To prevent frostbite, follow these tips:

  • Dress warmly and in layers, which trap warm air between them.
  • Make sure your head, neck and face are covered.
  • Cover your hands; mittens are better than gloves.
  • Wear proper footwear and wear two pairs of socks of a fabric that wicks moisture away from the body.
  • Don't wear tight clothing, as this can restrict blood flow and increase your risk of developing frostbite.
  • Make sure you put on a hat. This can prevent up to 20 percent of your total body heat loss.
  • Stay active and keep moving.
  • Stay away from alcohol, which can affect circulation.
  • And, finally, don't stay outside in freezing temperatures for extended periods of time.

If you think you have frostbite, get to a warm, dry place and contact a health-care practitioner.

More information

The National Library of Medicine has complete details on frostbite.

SOURCE: American College of Emergency Physicians
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