Health Science

Bundle up, #roc! What is frostbite?

As our area battens down the hatches in preparation for what promises to be a very cold, very snowy Saturday night and Sunday, there are no shortages of reasons to stay in. Not the least of which is, “fuck that.”

But one major danger posed to even those who limit their exposure to the elements can be frostbite. A really bad case of frostbite can cause you to lose digits. But even a relatively mild case is a painful experience. So what is frostbite, exactly? What is happening to your body when you experience the bite of winter?

What is Frostbite?

In short, frostbite is the injury sustained when parts of the body begin to freeze. As the body is exposed to more and more cold, it’s protective reaction is to pull blood flow away from the extremities and into your body’s core, thus protecting critical systems. However, this leaves cells in your fingers or your nose with less oxygen flow. This begins the damage to the cells in extremities, and causes them to start failing. But then… it gets worse.

With little blood to warm them and no oxygen to feed them, cells begin to freeze. Freezing water inside the cells creates crystals, which of course take up more room than water in liquid form. This causes cell walls and capillary vessels to burst open, often causing blood clots.

NOAA defines four major degrees of frostbite as follows:

Different Degrees of Frostbite

  • First degree: ice crystals forming on your skin
  • Second degree: your skin begins to feel warm, even though it is not yet defrosted.
  • Third degree: your skin turns red, pale, or white.
  • Fourth degree: pain lasts for more than a few hours, and you may see dark blue or black areas under the skin. See a doctor immediately if these symptoms arise. Gangrene is a real threat.

With enough damage, flesh and skin become unrepairable and may even require grafts. With enough damaged flesh on more exposed body parts, there’s nothing left to do but remove them. Cases this extreme are fairly rare. But in the meanwhile, rebuilding painfully swollen and damaged body parts is not a fun experience.

Oddly, while children and the elderly are the most at-risk members of our society, most cases of frostbite that get treated in hospitals are people between 30-49. That’s probably because people in that age group are more likely to have outside jobs like construction or to participate in winter sports.

Regardless of how much or how little exposure to the frigid temps that await us, just keep in mind that in the fight between skin and winter wind, your skin doesn’t stand a chance. Bundle up!