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How To Know Whether You're Getting Frostbite

This article is more than 9 years old.
Frostbitten hands/Wikimedia Commons)
Frostbitten hands/Wikimedia Commons)

Today is definitely an indoor recess day. It's a "cold stress" kind of day, raising risks of Siberian-style ills. If you have to be outside for more than a few minutes, here's a refresher: Frostbite shows up most often as loss of feeling and color in your extremities — fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks, chin.

And it can happen fast. Canadian television recently tweeted a warning for frigid Winnipeg: "Wind chill values of -40 to -45 expected. Frostbite can happen in less than 10 mins."

Here are the guidelines from the CDC:

At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin area, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin —- frostbite may be beginning. Any of the following signs may indicate frostbite:
a white or grayish-yellow skin area
skin that feels unusually firm or waxy
A victim is often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because the frozen tissues are numb.

And the "What to do" section from the CDC:

If (1) there is frostbite but no sign of hypothermia and (2) immediate medical care is not available, proceed as follows:
Get into a warm room as soon as possible.

Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes—this increases the damage.
Immerse the affected area in warm—not hot—water (the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body).
Or, warm the affected area using body heat. For example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers.
Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it at all. This can cause more damage.
Don’t use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can be easily burned.
These procedures are not substitutes for proper medical care. Hypothermia is a medical emergency and frostbite should be evaluated by a health care provider. It is a good idea to take a first aid and emergency resuscitation (CPR) course to prepare for cold-weather health problems. Knowing what to do is an important part of protecting your health and the health of others.

Hypothermia is no joke either; its symptoms include shivering, fatigue, confusion and loss of coordination. Please forgive this nag, but if you have to go out today, please do bundle up.

This program aired on January 23, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.