Whether you’ve been outside for five minutes or the whole day, frostbite—which occurs when blood flow is restricted due to severe cold and can cause tissue damage if untreated—has little sympathy for the body. Those parts of your body farthest from your heart, such as your fingers, toes, and face, are especially at risk. Frostbite occurs in two stages, and you should be vigilant about checking yourself and members of your group for signs of each when engaging in winter activities outdoors. Here’s how.
Signs of frostnip/superficial frostbite: The affected skin and the tissue just under the skin will appear soft and red (if the person is light-skinned) or lightened (if the person is dark-skinned). The affected area may feel numb, so people may have difficulty noticing symptoms on their own. If frostnip worsens, blisters filled with either clear fluid or blood may appear.
Treatment: When frostnip is detected, rewarm the affected area using skin-to-skin contact. Warm up fingers by placing them in armpits. Toes are a little trickier: Change out of wet socks and loosen boots to encourage blood flow. Sufferers may be able to use a friend’s body heat to warm toes as well. For frostnipped ears or nose, cover the area with a warm hand or glove. Once the skin has regained heat, be sure to cover the area with warm, dry clothing to prevent further damage from the cold.
Signs of deep frostbite: The skin and the tissue underneath it will feel hard to the touch and will appear white, gray, or blue. Damage spreads from tissue to other parts of the body. Be aware: Deep frostbite can be extremely painful when thawed.
Treatment: Handle the affected tissue very gently to prevent further damage. Cover the area with dry clothes but do not actively thaw the tissue, as rapid rewarming can cause permanent injury. The damaged tissue is also very susceptible to refreezing and will be difficult to protect in a cold environment. Head to a medical facility for immediate treatment.