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Avoiding frostbite on frigid winter days

This holiday season, you’ll feel great if you get outside and enjoy the crisp, cold weather and the snow.

This holiday season, you’ll feel great if you get outside and enjoy the crisp, cold weather and the snow. Whether you are snowboarding, skiing, tobaganning, snowshoeing or simply waiting for the bus, watch out for frostbite if you’re exposed for long periods of time when it’s very cold and windy.

If you or your children do get frostbitten, you could make it worse by rubbing it.

“Do not rub on the affected areas as this can cause further damage,” says Dr. Jensen Yeung, medical director of RKS Dermatology at Women’s College Hospital and the University of Toronto.

Frostbite is damage to the skin and other tissues due to extreme cold. It happens when blood vessels under the skin constrict, which can happen at zero degrees and below.

“A combination of factors determine when frostbite will form,” says Dr. Yeung. “These include the duration of cold exposure, windchill, wet clothing, inadequate clothing and poor circulation.” Poor circulation can be a result of wearing clothing that is too tight, smoking, diabetes or peripheral vascular disease.

According to Parks Canada, areas most prone to frostbite are toes, feet, fingers, hands, ears and face. Signs of symptoms of frostbite include:

  • Shivering (may be absent in later stages)

  • Lack of feeling in the affected area

  • Skin that appears waxy

  • Skin that is discoloured (flushed, white, yellow, blue)

In second degree frostbite, says Dr. Yeung, water-filled blisters can develop. In third and fourth degree frostbite, blood-filled blisters generally occur and damage to the nerves, or even gangrene can result.

Here’s what to do: Bring the person to a warm environment as soon as possible. Replace wet clothing with dry clothing. Wrap the person with warm blankets. Rapidly rewarm the affected areas in a bathtub with water at 40-42 degrees. Only start to rewarm the person if further refreezing can be prevented. Fluid replacement is also of utmost importance.

Frostbite is most common in outdoor workers, homeless people, and athletes participating in winter outdoor sports. But it can certainly strike adults and children who are having fun and stay outside a little longer than they should.

Avoiding frostbite

To avoid frostbite, says Dr. Yeung, make sure you are wearing clothing that is warm enough (and not too tight), preferably using multiple layers. The best winter clothing is breathable, windproof, and quick-drying. Listen to weather forecasts, increase caloric intake if you are going to be outside for long periods of time, and generally avoid smoking so that you maintain good circulation, he suggests.

Another hazard

Hypothermia is another risk from cold weather and prolonged outdoor activities. It can sneak up on you if the weather changes, warns Parks Canada. Someone who is suffering from hypothermia is no longer able to keep themselves warm and definitely needs help from others.

It’s possible to develop hypothermia at any temperature less 0thandegrees, especially if there is also prolonged exposure, dampness and wind.

Signs and Symptoms of Hypothermia

  • Shivering (may be absent in later stages)

  • Numbness

  • Lack of coordination

  • Confused or unusual behaviour

  • Body temperature below 35º C (95º F)

Here’s what to do until you can get medical help: Remove all wet clothing and make sure the person is dry; wrap the person in sleeping bags, blankets or dry clothing; use hot water bottles or heating pads, but not directly on the skin; give the person something warm to drink; call for medical attention.

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