Congelatio is not an Italian ice cream, but it can feel as cold as one. The medical term for frostbite, the phenomenon occurs when frigid temperatures restrict blood flow and cause tissue damage. Extremities farthest from the heart—feet, noses, and ears—are the most susceptible. Hands aren’t immune either as many with frozen fingers have learned. And people with poor circulation, like those with Raynaud’s syndrome or previously frostbitten parts, are more likely to be victims.
Aaron Gorban, AMC’s manager of leadership training and risk management, has successfully led many individuals and groups into cold, raw environments. He offers some tips for remaining frostbite-free.
PREVENT FROSTBITE BEFORE YOU GET COLD Wear layered, loose clothing. Nothing should be tight enough to restrict circulation, especially boots and crampons. If you are going to be out in the severe cold for an extended period, invest in insulated gloves and boots. Keep outside moisture away from your skin with waterproof outerlayers and stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Alcohol is deceiving; though it may feel warming, it’s very dehydrating.
LOOK OUT FOR OTHERS When it’s cold, keep an eye on members of your group, “especially on faces and ears and places they can’t see themselves,” adds Gorban. Watch kids carefully because they lose heat quickly and often don’t want to end the fun by admitting they’re cold.
KNOW THE WARNING SIGNS There are three stages of frostbite. “Frostnip” precedes the more serious injury and is marked by numb, soft, pale skin; it can feel like a sunburn. The next “partial thickness” stage occurs when skin is still pliable but not as soft, may be marked by fluid- or blood-filled blisters called “blebs,” and hurts upon rewarming, says Gorban. Remember your mom rubbing your frozen feet and how excruciating it was when the blood started to flow again? In the third stage, “full thickness” frostbite, skin looks white and hard, and feels numb, tingly, and possibly very painful. Untreated frostbitten skin darkens within hours. Skin destroyed by frostbite eventually turns completely black and looks like it has been burnt.
DON’T RUB ‘EM, JUST GET ‘EM HOME If it looks like frostnip, use skin-to-skin contact–cupping your warm hands on someone’s ears, for instance—to keep the area warm. Avoid the temptation to rub the frozen part or you may cause further tissue damage. If you can see blebs, cover them with a bandage or clothing and get out of the cold quickly.
“These people need to come out ASAP,” Gorban advises. He frowns on rewarming at all in the field as it can be extremely painful. He subscribes to the outdoor leader’s credo that a person can walk out on frozen feet but not on frozen feet that have been rewarmed. Tissue damage as a result of rewarming can be severe. Err on the side of safety by getting victims to the hospital, where frostbite is typically treated by gradual immersion in a tub of warm water.