Frostbite occurs when the skin and tissues beneath the skin freeze. The damage is reversible if it is caught early and treated properly. If frostbite is not quickly dealt with, however, it can lead to permanent tissue damage, and even amputation.
Workers need to recognize the symptoms of frostbite, including feeling uncomfortably cold, and then feeling numb; or feeling tingling, aching, or brief pain in the affected body parts. Skin color may change dramatically: The skin will first look much paler than normal, and waxy; as frostbite progresses, skin may darken and blister, becoming an unhealthy shade of blue, gray, or black, with a “wooden” feel.
Don’t treat frostbite until the victim is out of the cold for good, so that tissue will not refreeze, and don’t treat frostbite until you have first treated any symptoms of hypothermia. Also, remember that direct application of heat can cause more damage. Here are some frostbite first aid do’s and don’ts:
- Don’t rub the affected body part.
- Don’t apply a heat lamp or hot water bottles.
- Don’t go near a hot stove.
- Don’t break blisters.
- Do warm the frozen body part quickly with sheets, blankets, or warm—not hot—water.
- Do exercise the warmed body part—but don't walk on frostbitten feet.
- Do get medical attention.
- Do elevate the frozen body part and cover with sterile cloths before moving.
How cold is too cold? A cold environment forces the body to work harder to maintain its temperature. Cold air, water, and snow all draw heat from the body. Cold stress occurs when cold conditions overcome the body’s natural ability to warm itself. Under pressure from the cold, the body will begin to shift blood from the extremities and outer skin to the core (the chest and abdomen). This allows exposed skin and the extremities to cool rapidly, leading to tissue damage and possibly death.
Four factors contribute to cold stress:
- Cold air temperatures
- High velocity air movement
- Dampness of the air
- Contact with cold water or surfaces