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The Cold Facts on Frostbite

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What is Frostbite?

If you've ever been so cold that it hurt, you've had a little taste of what it's like to have frostbite. Frostbite (also called chilblains) is the injury or destruction of skin tissue (or tissue under the skin) resulting from extended exposure to freezing temperatures. Frostbite normally affects fingers, toes, ears and noses - all the parts of your body that get cold first.

What Happens When You Get Frostbite?

When skin is exposed to extreme cold for too long, small blood vessels start to shrink. Blood moves slower through the smaller blood vessels and eventually stops circulating. In some cases, the skin may even freeze. Since blood normally carries oxygen to the skin, the skin tissue starts to die when the blood stops moving. Extreme frostbite may lead to gangrene (irreparable skin tissue death), which may need to be treated with amputation. Yikes! Blisters are caused when ice crystals form in the blood, which causes skin cells to rupture.

What Are the Symptoms of Frostbite?

If you're out in the cold and notice any pale or glossy (or waxy looking) skin, numbness or blistering, you should get inside quickly. Frostbitten skin may also feel stiff and look bluish. Other symptoms are itching, swelling, burning and pain when the area is warmed.

How Do You Treat Frostbite?

A person with frostbite needs to get inside and warm up right away. Remove anything covering the affected skin and gently bathe the area in lukewarm water. Don't use hot water and don't rub the area at all. Seek medical attention right away.

How Do You Avoid Frostbite?

Obviously, it's best to avoid getting frostbite in the first place. To do this, make sure to bundle up before heading out into the cold. Wear a lot of layers because the air between them helps you to keep warm. Also, make sure to protect your most vulnerable areas (hands, feet and other extremities) by wearing gloves, warm socks and protective footwear. It's a good idea to take regular breaks from your icy activities and head inside to warm up.

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