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Six things you need to know about frostbite

Cold woman
Sybil Millar
Written by Sybil Millar

With Toronto plunging into another deep freeze this week, remember that “frostbite is no joke,” says Dr. Marc Jeschke, Medical Director of the Ross Tilley Burn Centre at Sunnybrook. Here are six things you should know about frostbite:

1. Frostbite is actually a burn

“The effect frostbite has on the skin is similar to a burn, so people with severe frostbite are treated here in our burn centre,” says Dr. Jeschke, who estimates he treated about a dozen serious cases of frostbite last year.

The recovery time from frostbite can be just as long as a burn, too.

“It can take years for some people to recover from frostbite injuries, particularly if they’ve experienced severe consequences like amputation,” he says.

2. Know the difference between frostnip and frostbite

Frostnip most commonly affects the hands and feet. It initially causes cold, burning pain, with the area affected becoming blanched. It is easy to treat and with rewarming, the area becomes reddened.

Meanwhile, frostbite is the acute version of frostnip, when the soft tissue actually freezes. The risk is particularly dangerous on days with a high wind chill factor. If not quickly and properly treated, it can lead to the loss of tissues or even limbs.

3. Alcohol will only make things worse

You may think alcohol will warm you up in the frigid temperatures, but it actually has the opposite effect.

“Alcohol dilates our blood vessels, bringing blood closer to the skin’s surface and causing us to lose heat even faster,” says Dr. Jeschke.

“Alcohol also causes people to make bad decisions, like falling asleep in snowbanks. If you’re going to be outside in these temperatures, be smart about your alcohol consumption.”

4. It can only take a few minutes for frostbite to develop

Frostbite can develop quickly when it’s very cold outside, particularly if an accelerant is involved.

“If you have water or gasoline on your hands, frostbite can happen in just a matter of minutes,” says Dr. Jeschke.

If you’re out in the cold and you’re in pain, and suddenly that pain goes away, that’s a bad sign.

“This means your nerve endings are numb and you can no longer feel the cold, which is dangerous,” he says.

5. Take care when warming up

If you suspect you have frostbite, don’t do anything extreme to warm up the affected skin.

“Hot water can actually cause more damage. So can a direct heat source, like a fireplace, because your skin has lost sensation and you won’t realize you’re actually burning yourself,” says Dr. Jeschke.

Instead, gently rub the area and cover it with clothing or a blanket.

6. If there are concerning changes to your skin, seek medical attention immediately

Signs of frostbite include blistering, discolouration or darkening of the skin, swelling, redness and pain.

“If you experience these symptoms after exposure to the cold, go to your local emergency department to get checked out,” says Dr. Jeschke. And, if the skin has developed blisters, don’t pop them!

About the author

Sybil Millar

Sybil Millar

Sybil Millar is the Communications Advisor for the Ross Tilley Burn Centre, Critical Care and Infectious Diseases programs at Sunnybrook.

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