The idea that your fingers and toes fall off if you get frostbite is a myth; quite often, the worst that happens might be permanent numbness. But you can also wind up with gangrene — and lose a toe or finger or ear or nose — if you’re not careful. First, recognize the symptoms of frostbite:
A pins-and-needles sensation, then numbness.
Hard, pale, cold, numb skin. When frostbitten skin has thawed, it becomes red and painful (early frostbite). More severe frostbite results in white and numb skin because the tissue has started to freeze.
If you or someone you’re with has frostbite:
1. Get the person to a warmer place. Remove any constricting jewelry and wet clothing.
2. If possible, wrap the affected areas in sterile dressings (remember to separate affected fingers and toes) and get the person to the nearest emergency room.
3. If immediate care is not available, immerse the affected areas in warm — never hot — water or repeatedly apply warm cloths to affected ears, nose, or cheeks for 20-30 minutes. Keep circulating the water to aid the warming process. Warming is complete when the skin is soft and sensation returns.
4. Move thawed areas as little as possible.
5. If the frostbite is extensive, give warm drinks to the victim in order to replace lost fluids.
6. Don’t thaw out a frostbitten area if it cannot be kept thawed. Refreezing may make tissue damage even worse. Also, don’t use direct dry heat (such as a radiator, campfire, heating pad, or hair dryer). Direct heat can burn already damaged tissues.
7. Don’t rub or massage the affected area, or disturb blisters on frostbitten skin.
8. Don’t smoke or drink alcohol during recovery, as both can interfere with blood circulation.
One of the best ways to guard against hypothermia (lowered body temperature) is to recognize the early warning signs. If someone you’re with exhibits any of these, get him to a warm place right away. Severe cases require medical attention.
1. Shivering. An early sign of hypothermia, shivering starts mildly, but can become more severe and finally convulsive before ceasing.
2. Slurred speech.
3. Loss of coordination. This might begin as difficulty tying your shoelaces or zipping your jacket, and eventually include stumbling or falling.
5. Apathy (for example, not caring about your own needs).
6. Irrational behavior.
Read more about first aid and environmental emergencies.
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