Outdoor enthusiasts are fighting a constant battle to regulate comfortable body temperature for staying outside longer during the winter months. Without proper clothing, and lacking the warmth of physical activity, most people are only comfortable when the temperature exceeds 80 degrees F.
Bring the temperature down, and goosebumps appear. Lower the temperature more, and shivering commences. As time goes by, many will have to face dealing with frostbite, and the first instinct is to heat the area through any available means.
If you like to spend a lot of time exploring the wilderness, you probably know by now that subfreezing temperatures and sharp winds can spell disaster for the unprepared camper. When they find themselves ill-prepared and stuck outdoors, suffering from the commencement of frostbite. There are various ways of treating frostbite. Will you make the right choice, or will you follow with the survival myth?
🌲 The myth of dealing with frostbite in the wild
Friction generates heat, and the first instinct of those dealing with frostbite would be to rub the injury. In their mind, it seems logical to rub the frostbitten skin to thaw it out and heat the area. Some people will use hot or burning water to defrost and heat the frozen tissue, even if they may still be under the threat of refreezing.
Both of these choices are a bad idea, and they can lead to painful and permanent consequences. Just because you’ve seen someone in the movies do it, that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. This is one of those survival myths that keep popping up here and there without people researching the facts.
🥶 The reality of dealing with a frostbite
As the mercury drops below 32 degrees, Fahrenheit and your skin start to freeze, and there are a number of harms that will make an injury worse. Let’s look at how this myth has associated itself with proper frostbite treatment.
Frostbite happens when ice forms in your skin and the underlying tissues. Superficial frostbite is the most common, and it frequently happens to exposed skin (typically the face), but it can also affect the ears, hands, and feet (particularly fingers and toes).
This lightly frozen tissue may appear waxy and pale, feeling stiff on the surface, but the underlying tissue still feels soft. Pain or numbness will likely accompany the aforementioned symptoms.
In the case of severe frostbite, the freezing will be deeper and will spread across a wider area, although it may not be noticeable at first. After a while, the skin will appear pale and firm, and the underlying tissue will feel solid to the touch. In most tissues with deep frostbite installed, besides the area feeling numb, joint movement will also be restricted. Severe frostbite could result in the loss of appendages due to infection and necrosis (tissue death).
Proper treatment of frostbite requires a gentle approach and a gradual rewarming of the skin and tissue. Such treatment can be applied regardless if you are on the field or in the hospital. However, when you are in the field, you should proceed forward only if you are certain there’s no danger of refreezing.
Before attempting treatment, the first thing you have to do is seek shelter from the cold. To be prepared to face the intense pen, it is recommended to take Ibuprofen. For superficial frostbite, place a warm body against the frostbitten tissue.
In a survival course, we learned to place a frostbite area near the core of a partner (belly, chest,etc.) to gradually warm the area. In case you suffer from frostbite to the fingers, you can place them under your bare armpit. The rewarming should be done until the tissue softens, and the color has returned.
In case you are suffering from deep frostbite, you will have to gradually warm the area at a steady temperature. Warm water can be used, but you should make sure the water’s temperature is not over 105 degrees Fahrenheit. In case you don’t have a thermometer at hand, you can use an uninjured body part to test the temperature.
You will have to submerge the affected body part slowly in a container filled with water. Having a collapsible bucket would be ideal. After you’ve submerged the injured part, make sure to add water gradually to maintain the proper water temperature in the container you are using.
Be prepared to face intense pain, and if available, take some Advil or Motrin to reduce the pain. Check with your doctor on the recommended doses since this can be influenced by many factors. Also, it is imperative to resist any urge to rub the frostbitten area unless you want to cause more tissue damage.
Once you manage to thaw the frostbitten area, do whatever you can to protect that area from refreezing. Also, make sure to monitor for hypothermia and sock. It is recommended to stay in your shelter and continue taking Ibuprofen every eight hours until you can receive proper medical care.
To warm your body and prevent hypothermia from setting in, it’s recommended to eat food high in calories and protein to restore the overall temperature. It is also recommended to avoid certain liquids and use only those that are beneficial in this situation. More on this in the article below:
Just like any other health issue, prevention is your main course of action and the best strategy available. If you spend time in the outdoors, and the temperature starts to drop, make sure to cover all exposed skin with anything that keeps you warm and manages to block the wind.
Even temperatures barely below freezing can cause frostbites if strong winds are involved or if you have been exposed to the cold for a long period. Keep in mind that frostbite can occur on exposed skin in just a few minutes if the temperature is below 0 degrees F.
🧊 Identify a frostbite
Frostbites will typically occur on your body extremities that have minimal blood flow. The fingers, toes, ears, and nose are the most affected areas. Check these parts as frequently as possible during your outdoor travels and make sure blood flow and warmth are present.
You can squeeze your fingers and toes to check the capillary refill and watch how quickly the blood returns to the area after letting go.
⏲️ Time may not be on your side
Time is the marker that will tell how bad you have it. If you get stranded in the wilderness, in a remote location, and are experiencing severe frostbite, the skin will start to blister and turn back in two or three days.
After a week has passed, the frostbite will turn into necrosis, and this will lead to a massive infection. Deep frostbite is painful and has a high rate of infection. Even under proper medical care, after weeks of medical care, the affected tissue can still be at risk. The ice crystals forming in your cells can damage even healthy neighboring cells, and the tissue turns black, eventually requiring surgical removal.
Daily medical care is required for weeks (up to months) for those affected by moderate or severe frostbites. In some cases, skin grafts or amputations can occur even a month after the discovery of the frostbite.
Dealing with frostbites in the wilderness is no easy task, and besides the need for proper shelter, the patient requires pain medication and gradual, gentle treatment of the affected area. It is advised to seek medical care as soon as possible if you are suffering from frostbite. Don’t believe in survival myths, and keep your cool before you make the situation worse.
Useful resources to check out: