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Your Healthy Family: Low temperatures and snow are a recipe for frostbite

Posted at 2:16 PM, Feb 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-01 22:24:26-05

COLORADO SPRINGS — In this Your Healthy Family, with snow - and more importantly, very cold weather - moving into Colorado, we're sharing some important reminders on the dangers of frostbite and how to avoid it.

Dr. Ian Tullberg is the Urgent Care Medical Director for UCHealth, and he often treats people with frostbite through the winter months. Dr. Tullberg says: “The big message, No. one, is prevention. I will always harp on that, and the big thing is layers, layers, layers.”

Dr. Tullberg also say parents oftentimes will have to be the ones to make sure kids are prepared for the cold and snow. “Please make sure that you are having your kids dressed appropriately when they leave the house. Parents need to be on this one, even when your child might think it's not cool to wear a heavy coat, hat and gloves and be warm.”

The areas of the body that are most affected by frostbite are easy to remember, says Dr. Tullberg. “Ears, nose, fingers and toes - that’s what we say. Depending on what you have on top of your head, whether it's earmuffs or a headband or a full-blown toboggan (hat), please keep those things covered. There's not a lot of blood supply to the ears and nose and fingers and toes. Try not to step in puddles because if your socks get soaked, it takes forever to warm them up. Then if you’re walking around on them all day, and they are numb and you don't really realize what's going on until you take your shoes off at the end of the day - and then who knows what you're in for at that point.”

Dr. Tullberg says redness and tingling are the early warning signs that your body is losing the battle to stay warm, so don’t ignore them. “You're out there you're shoveling and you get that little redness on your ears or your nose and that's when it's called frostnip. It’s a little numbness or tingling, and when that happens you want to get inside and get yourself warm. You don't necessarily need to run your hands under a warm faucet or anything like that.”

If the tingling or numbness don’t go away, Dr. Tullberg says there are a few do’s and dont’s for the next step. “You want to start the warming process, and that is not jumping in a super hot shower. One, that would probably hurt; and two, it's not going to do your cells any good. You want to start with water right around 100 degrees, just slightly warmer than body temperature and then just let it sit there.”

Once you start to notice colors in your skin that are not going away - red, white, blue or gray - Dr. Tullberg says you’ll want to get it looked at, with your primary care physican, at an urgent care, or in extreme cases of frostbite, in the emergency room. “When exposure to the cold is a little bit more prolonged and you start getting some white, or things look a little bit shiny or plastic on your fingers, that's when I would start seeking medical attention. I always say better safe than sorry. Sometimes when it comes to mild frostbite, the lines can be blurred between when it needs medical attention or not. I would say, if you're not warming up or you’re not warming up well, if you're feeling like a something just doesn't feel right, or if it feels different than usual, then get seen. The problem is sometimes people wait to come in. If it's two, three or four days later and all the sudden we see someone come into the urgent care and they say, “I've got problems with possible frostbite,” there is unfortunately not a lot we can do about it at that point.”

So remember, symptoms of frostbite include redness or pain in the affected area, purple to white/grayish-yellow skin, skin that feels abnormally firm or waxy, numbness, blisters or black skin in severe cases.

UCHealth's Burn and Frostbite Center [uchealth.org] offers the following tips if someone suspects frostbite due to cold exposure:

· Prevent additional exposure to the cold

· Rewarm the affected area in warm (not hot) water for 15 – 30 minutes (about 100 degrees F for 20-30 minutes)

· Do not rub the affected area as this can cause tissue damage

· Keep the affected area elevated to reduce swelling

· Use over the counter pain medication like ibuprofen if the affected area is painful upon warming

· Try to avoid walking on frostbitten feet

· If the skin appears blue, bluish-gray or blisters form when the skin warms, it is important to seek medical attention as soon as possible to prevent further tissue damage.

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