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Cold Exposure-Extremities
Frostbite

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Definition

Frostbite is a tissue injury caused by prolonged exposure to very low temperatures. Frostbite causes numbness and loss of skin coloration in affected areas. It often affects the extremities of the body such as the fingers, toes, ears, nose and chin. Extreme cases of frostbite may require amputation.

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Symptoms

Frostbite symptoms begin to emerge before damage is done. The initial stages consist of a reddening of exposed skin accompanied by a painful tingling sensation. At this stage, permanent frostbite damage is preventable if the individual finds a warmer environment. Once the following frostbite symptoms have developed, frostbite may have set in completely.

  • White or gray-yellow skin
  • Firm skin that is waxy to the touch
  • Numbness

Victims of frostbite are often unaware of the condition due to the numbness in the affected area until it is discovered and pointed out by others.

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Implication

If frostbite is treated in time, it will not result in permanent damage. If, however, frostbite is left untreated and cold exposure continues; it is capable of damaging blood vessels, potentially leading to gangrene which often results in amputation and/or disfigurement. Severe cases of frostbite can result in damage to underlying muscle and tendons in affected areas. Additionally, any temperature low enough to cause frostbite also carries the dangers of Hypothermia.

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Possible Causes

The cause of all frostbite is exposure to low temperatures. Some people are more susceptible to frostbite. Those taking certain drugs known as beta blockers have reduced circulation, increasing the risk of frostbite. These same risks apply to smokers, those under the effect of alcohol or diabetics and those who suffer from peripheral vascular disease (an arterial disorder). High winds speed up the process of frostbite injury. Tight boots or clothing may restrict blood flow and cause a faster onset of frostbite as well.

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Treatment Options

Frostbite is a condition which requires First Aid. The most important thing is to remove the victim from the cold and get him or her to shelter. Signs of hypothermia should always be checked for. Immediate medical attention is recommended. Frostbitten areas should be re-warmed by application of warm (not hot) water and warm blankets and towels. If none are available, body heat may be used in an emergency situation. To prevent potential infection, sterile dressings should be used after thawing. Contrary to the old myth, rubbing snow (or anything, for that matter) on frostbitten areas will not help warm them up, but will aggravate tissue damage and make matters worse. The warming process is extremely painful and the skin will change color. Warming is complete when the skin is soft to the touch and regular sensation returns to the frostbite patient.

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Home Care & Natural Remedies

Frostbite is better prevented than treated. Warm clothing covering all exposed skin is best when dealing with conditions cold enough to cause frostbite. Those with poor circulation such as cigarette smokers should consider taking a supplement such as Ginko Biloba, which is known to increase blood flow. Alcoholic beverages should be avoided by those planning to be outdoors in cold weather, and warm, sugary drinks such as hot chocolate will assist in keeping such individuals warm

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Frost Bite