Whenever skin is exposed to very cold temperatures, frostbite becomes a genuine risk. Generally, fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks, and chin are at risk of frostbite. And while most often, it’s cold weather putting people at risk for frostbite, skin that comes in direct contact with ice, frozen metal, or very cold liquids (i.e. water) may also succumb to frostbite.
Even though skin is covered by gloves or other clothing, there is still risk of frostbite when temperatures are below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. When temperatures drop below 5 degrees, frostbite risk increase. When wind chill factors are at or below -16 degrees, frostbite can occur in less than 30 minutes.
Signs of Frostbite Setting In
Signs that frostbite may affect skin include skin that is very cold and red. At this stage, if exposure to cold continues, the skin will become numb, hard, and pale. These symptoms indicate that skin and the underlying tissues are freezing. Because skin becomes numb when frostbite occurs, the victim may not realize that frostbite is happening.
As it progresses, severe frostbite affects all skin layers and the underlying tissues. When this level of frostbite takes place, skin turns white or bluish-gray. In addition to numbness, all sensation of cold, pain, or discomfort may be undetectable in the affected area. When muscles and/or joints are involved, they may no longer function.
At this level of frostbite, rewarming may result in larger blisters, which can occur within 24 to 48 hours of rewarming. As tissue in the affected area dies, the skin will turn black and hard.
Conditions that can lead to frostbite include:
- Wearing clothing unsuitable for protecting skin from cold, windy, wet weather conditions.
- Exposure to cold and wind for an extended period of time.
- Touching elements such as ice, cold packs, frozen metal, etc.
After rewarming, if increased pain, swelling, redness, or discharge occurs in an area where frostbite occurred, medical assistance is advised. Other signs that medical attention is necessary include fever and new or unexplained symptoms.
In the interim, before medical help arrives, appropriate self-care measures include:
- Protect the area from further exposure to cold.
- Avoid walking on frostbitten feet.
- Reduce pain with Ibuprofen.
Avoid Frostbite During Farm Work
Staying warm and avoiding frostbite in cold-weather conditions can be accomplished with some simple step that include:
- Dress appropriately for weather conditions. This includes use of several layers of loose, warm clothing. When air is trapped between layers of clothing, it acts as insulation again cold temperatures. Undergarments that wick moisture away from the skin help skin stay dry. Windproof and waterproof outer garments protect against wind, snow and rain. If clothing becomes wet – especially gloves, hats and socks – change them as soon as possible.
- Wear a hat or headband that fully covers the ears. The most protective headwear materials include woolen or windproof fabric.
- Wear mittens rather than gloves because mittens better protect the hands. A thin pair of glove liners made of wicking fabric (such as polypropylene) may be worn under a pair of heavier gloves or mittens.
- Socks and sock liners should be made of wicking materials and fit well. Hand and foot warmers may also be effective in protecting against cold. Avoid socks or foot warmers that cause boots to fit tightly as this restricts blood flow.
- Eat well-balanced meals and stay hydrated prior to spending time outdoors. These practices assist in staying warm.
- Never drink alcohol before spending time in cold weather. Alcoholic beverages expedite cause the loss of body heat.
- Limit the time spent in cold, wet or windy weather. Be alert to changing weather conditions and forecasts and stay aware of wind chill readings. In very cold and windy weather conditions, frostbite may occur in a matter of minutes.
- Pay attention to signs of frostbite that include red or pale skin, prickling sensation in skin and numbness. If frostbite is suspected, seek warm shelter.
- When traveling during cold weather, maintain a stash of emergency supplies and clothing for unexpected events that may result in being stranded. Make others aware of travel plans and routes, including the projected return date.
- When stranded in cold weather, maintain physical movement, but don’t do it to the point of exhaustion.
Loretta Sorensen writes from her home in southeast South Dakota, where she regularly develops agricultural safety and health articles for the Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health (CS-CASH) at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
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