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Frostbite is More Than Cold Fingers

When the temperatures plummet to single and even negative digits, it doesn’t take long for frostbite to set in.

Posted: Jan. 3, 2018 8:50 AM

CLEVELAND – When the temperatures plummet to single and even negative digits, it doesn’t take long for frostbite to set in.

According to Tom Waters, M.D., an emergency department physician at Cleveland Clinic, frostbite occurs when the soft tissues of the skin begin to freeze.

“You actually get freezing of the water in the soft tissue and it causes damage on a microscopic and a macroscopic level,” said Dr. Waters. “As the extremities begin to become frost-bitten, the tissue damage continues to increase,”

Dr. Waters said frostbite most commonly effects the extremities, like the fingers, nose, toes and face.

Symptoms of frostbite include pain in the affected area, as well as discoloration of the skin.

The extent of frostbite damage can depend on just how cold the temperature is and how long someone is exposed.

Dr. Waters said the colder it is, the quicker frostbite can occur.

Young children and the elderly, as well as those who have chronic illness or spend a lot of time outdoors are most susceptible to frostbite.

If a person potentially has frostbite, Dr. Waters said it’s vital to get them indoors as soon as possible and then get to the emergency department to get them checked by a physician, because the damage can be worse than it appears.

“Ultimately you can lose fingers, digits or extremities,” said Dr. Waters. “Often the damage is more severe than it appears to be initially, so it’s very important once you identify a possible frostbite victim to get those extremities warmed up and keep them warm – don’t let them re-freeze.”

Dr. Waters said the key to preventing frostbite is to limit time outdoors during dangerously cold temperatures. For those who have to venture outdoors, it’s important to keep extremities like the hands, ears and face covered and to keep clothes dry.

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