Frostbite: Fighting Off the Jaws of Winter

Winter is cold. The temperature drops, the wind blows, the snow falls, and everything freezes over. Though the snow can be fun, making skiing, ice skating, sledding, snowball fights, and ice sculptures possible, it can also be uncomfortable. For anyone who lives with the reality of winter, you also know the season can be dangerous. Silent but painful problems like frostbite slowly attack your toes and feet, leaving you hurting.

Icy Bites

Frostbite is the damage your tissues develop from freezing and refreezing in the cold. Your extremities—your feet, hands, nose, and ears—are the most vulnerable. When your body becomes cold, the blood vessels all contract to prevent warmth from escaping. If the body gets too cold, the veins also work to keep your internal organs warm and functioning – at the expense of the other parts. This leaves areas like your feet at risk for problems.

There are three degrees to which your feet and toes can be damaged by frostbite. Surface level, or frost nip, only affects the very top of your skin. It numbs your feet and toes, then burns, itches, and aches as things thaw. Often the skin looks red and irritated. The next level is still considered superficial, but the whole outer skin is frozen. The skin can look waxy and white or grey. Often it blisters. Deep frostbite affects all layers of the skin and can result in tissue death. The affected area turns black and feels hard. If the damage is severe, or refreezes after thawing, the tissues may need to be amputated.

Thawing Out

If you are developing any level of frostbite, the most important thing for you to do is get out of the cold as soon as you are able. You will need to carefully warm your feet and seek prompt medical attention. Try to avoid walking on your now injured feet. Immerse them in warm, but not hot, water to gently warm the tissues. This may be painful and cause swelling, but it is important to return blood flow to the toes. However, if there is a chance your feet will refreeze before you can get medical attention, do not attempt to thaw them. A refreeze causes significant damage to your feet that may not be reversible.

As soon as you are able, have the experts at NorthPointe Foot & Ankle examine your feet to determine the extent of the injury. They will be able to develop a plan to relieve your discomfort and help your feet and toes recover.

Bundle Up

The best way to deal with any level of frostbite is to avoid it in the first place. When you go out in wintery weather, wear several layers of warm socks, especially ones that wick moisture away from the skin. Use waterproof, comfortable footwear. Regularly wiggle your toes to check their warmth and keep blood flowing. Don’t smoke or drink alcohol before spending time outside in the cold. If you notice your feet or anywhere else on your body getting too cold, or your clothes become too wet, get inside and begin warming up. Better to cut short your activity time than have to spend a long time recovering from frozen tissues!

Frostbite can be a very serious condition. If not treated immediately, the damage it causes can be permanent and result in serious complications. Do not ignore pain and cold in your feet and risk your skin freezing. Get warm, and then contact NorthPointe Foot & Ankle immediately for an appointment or more information. Call our Berkley office at (248) 545-0100 or visit the online contact page to reach us.