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What you need to know about frostbite



Dangerous wind chills have experts at Gundersen Health System reminding you that it's important to take precautions to prevent frostbite.

"Frostbite is one of the most serious cold weather-related injuries. Frostbite happens when your body tissue essentially freezes after exposure to extreme cold,” says Dr. Kim Breidenbach, Gundersen Tri-County physician.

Typically, frostbite affects the hands, feet, nose or ears; though other parts of the body may also be affected. When your body is exposed to extreme cold, blood flow and heat delivered to the body tissues decrease and ice crystals form.

"For the most part, it is a combination of temperature and the length of exposure that play a role in determining the extent and severity of any cold weather-related injury. However, without proper protection, cold weather-related injuries can occur even when temperatures are above freezing. This is especially true if there are high winds or if clothing is wet,” adds Dr. Breidenbach.

Frostbite injuries can be classified as superficial or deep. Superficial frostbite injuries involve the skin and tissues just below the skin, while deep frostbite injuries extend beyond these areas and involve the tendons, muscles, nerves and even bone. Superficial frostbite injuries have a better prognosis than deep injuries.

A person can suffer various degrees of frostbite:

  • First degree: Irritates the skin
  • Second degree: Blisters but leads to no major damage
  • Third degree: Involves all layers of the skin and causes permanent tissue damage

Children tend to be at a greater risk for frostbite because they are less likely to come inside during freezing-cold weather and because their body heat escapes more easily. Parents should keep a close eye on their children if they're outside during the cold weather and keep in mind the following tips:

  1. If you notice fingers, cheeks, ears, lips, nose or toes that are turning white get your child inside immediately. If there is a waxy appearance to their skin, seek emergency care quickly.
  2. Remove wet clothes.
  3. Get your child into a warm bath until there's feeling again in the affected areas. Be sure to use warm water, not hot water.

For more information talk with your primary care provider or call Gundersen Telephone Nurse Advisors at (608) 775-4454.

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