In the wilderness, the biting winds and the subfreezing temperatures are always a recipe for disaster. The wintery scenery is beautiful, but it can also become a dangerous trap for the ill-prepared adventurer. If you find yourself suffering from the onset of frostbite is better to follow the proper procedures to keep yourself warm and ignore the myths.
Folks stuck out in the great outdoors often panic as time goes by, and they fail to follow the basic and logical steps to protect themselves from the cold and the elements. Most oftentimes, they will push forward, believing that they will reach civilization soon enough and they will be saved. All this despite now having a clue where they are and how to find their bearings.
Some of them may build a shelter and try to warm themselves after seeing that wandering around without direction is of no use. They may even have a few choices for emergency treatment, and they will try to mend their cold-related injuries as best they can. However, will they make the right choice and avoid unwanted future consequences?
Myths and fables
When dealing with a cold injury, a person will remember the things they saw in movies or the stuff they read online. Things like staying together to avoid heat loss or perhaps rubbing the frozen area to warm it. After all, we know that friction generates heat, and we will instinctively rub our hands together when they are too cold. It seems logical to rub frostbite or frostbitten skin to thaw it out, doesn’t it?
Another habit that is hard to get rid of is using hot (in some cases even scalding) water to defrost the frozen tissue, even though in many cases, the “warmed tissue” is probably still under the threat of refreezing.
All these desperate and logical (to some) ideas or treatment measures can lead to painful and permanent consequences. It’s better to learn what to do from proper sources or from trained medical personnel rather than testing the myths you’ve heard/seen on your own skin.
The reality of dealing with frostbite
Regardless of where you find yourself, may it be a rural or urban environment, when the mercury drops below 32 degrees F, any exposed skin will start to freeze, and it’s a matter of hours until you are forced to deal with frostbite. The problem with lacking the knowledge to take care of yourself often leads to using an umber of mistreatments that will make a cold-related injury even worse.
Let’s bust some of the myths associated with the treatment of frostbite.
Frostbite occurs when ice starts to form under your skin and the underlying tissue. The weather you’re exposed to plays the main role in how quickly the skin freezes. The colder it gets, and the more your skin remains exposed to freezing temperature and high winds, the faster the frostbite occurs. Wind makes matters worse because it dissipates all the heat your body produces, and your skin is not able to warm itself fast enough when exposed to the cold air.
Superficial frostbite frequently occurs on exposed skin such as the face, but it can also affect the ears and your hands and feet. When it comes to the body parts that are more at risk, it’s usually your toes and fingers that suffer the most, and it may take a lot of time until you notice the symptoms.
A lightly frozen tissue becomes waxy and pale, and upon touching it, it feels stiff on the surface with an underlying tissue that is still soft. In some cases, pain and numbness will accompany these symptoms.
As time passes, your skin may experience severe frostbite when the deeper tissue starts to freeze and spread over a wider area. In such a case, the affected area will become pale and firm, and compared to light freezing, the underlying tissue feels solid. A deep-frozen tissue feels numb, and it will restrict joint movement. It often leads to loss of appendages due to necrosis (tissue death) and infection.
Proper treatment of frostbite should be gentle, and you need to gradually warm the frozen skin and tissues. Such operation can be done in the hospital or in the field if you’ll make sure there’s no danger of refreezing.
Before you apply treatment to frostbite, you should first seek shelter from the cold. You should improvise a shelter whit whatever’s at hand and start a fire going as soon as you can. Additionally, you should also prepare yourself to deal with intense pain by taking some pain medicine like Ibuprofen. It goes without saying that you should only take medicine you’re not allergic to.
In case you are dealing with superficial frostbite, you can place the frozen tissue near a warm body part to initiate a heat transfer. In case you are not alone, and let’s say your feet are freezing, you could place them against the belly of the person you are with. If you’re alone and your hands are freezing, you can tuck them under your bare armpit. You will need to rewarm the tissue until its color has returned and it feels soft to the touch.
In case you are dealing with deep frostbite, you will have to make sure you rewarm the frozen tissue with water kept at a stable temperature. The water shouldn’t be over 105 degrees F, and you should use a thermometer to make sure the temperature remains stable. If you don’t have one available, you can use any uninjured body part to gauge the temperature.
Keep in mind that you need to warm the water gradually if its temperature drops, and this means you should heat water in different containers. For example, you will need a container in which you will slowly immerse the frozen body tissue, and once you notice that the water temperature starts to drop, add more warm water from the secondary container to maintain a steady water temperature.
Before beginning the rewarming of deep frostbitten tissue, it’s also recommended to take some pain meds, but you should avoid taking a higher than normal dose. Talk to your doctor about these since he or she will be able to advise regarding the use of pain medicine based on your medical history.
Whatever you do, resist the urge to rub or massage any frozen skin since this will only lead to more tissue damage.
Once the frozen tissue is thawed, you have to put all your effort into preventing yourself or the person you’re taking care of from refreezing. Also, you should monitor yourself or your patient from hypothermia and shock.
Eat or administer foods high in calories and protein to help the body fuel itself and to help restore its overall body temperature. Avoid any alcoholic beverages and drink only hot beverages that are recommended when dealing with cold-related injuries. Also, smoking should be avoided after this kind of injury.
First of all, prevention is the best survival strategy, and you should never go out unprepared, even if you think it’s just for “a few hours”. When you are doing winter activities for work or leisure, make sure you always cover your exposed skin with any type of garment that can block the wind.
You may think that frostbite occurs only when there are temperatures below freezing, but when strong winds are involved, and you are exposed to cold for extended periods of time, frostbite can still occur. Once the temperatures drop near 0 degrees F, any exposed skin can suffer from frostbite in mere minutes.
Second, know the location of the frostbite and which are the body parts more at risk. For example, frostbite usually affects the extremities, which are known to have minimal blood flow. Your fingers, toes, ears, and nose are the most vulnerable parts, and you should check these areas often. During their outdoor travel, many folks suffer from frostbite and end up losing their toes because they assume their feet are warm, and they don’t bother checking their toes and feet for blood flow and warmth.
It is recommended to often stop and squeeze your fingers and toes to check capillary refill by watching closely how the blood returns to those areas after letting go.
And third, time is a definitive factor in how a light freezing or deep frostbite will end up. If you get stranded in a remote area and you experience severe frostbite, after a few days, your skin will blister and begin turning black. After one or two weeks, the frostbite will turn into necrosis and will most probably cause a massive infection. You will require surgical removal of dead tissue since necrosis can spread much more than it’s visible.
Daily care of severe frostbite is needed for weeks and months after the onset, and in certain cases, amputation can still occur, or skin grafts may be needed even a month after the initial injury. It is recommended to seek professional medical care if you’ve experienced frostbite, regardless of its a mild or severe form.
This article has been written by James H. Redford MD for Prepper’s Will.
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