My father, now 90 years old, has always had the ability to remain preternaturally calm in an emergency. Thus, I initially thought nothing of it when my phone rang and he said, matter of factly, “I need a little advice.”
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Oh, your mom fell in a snow drift, we’re socked in by a blizzard, and I was wondering what a person might do for frostbite.”
That was my “holy crap” moment. I soon learned that Mom (84 at the time) has been stuck in the drift for 20 minutes and attempted to crawl the 50 yards to the house on her hands and knees. Living in a remote, rural area of Missouri, and with roads impassable, there was no chance of getting her to a hospital.
Frostbite was nothing new to me, as I spent nearly 15 years in the northern Rockies and routinely dealt with temperatures of 50 below. My rule has always been that the best way to treat frostbite is to avoid putting yourself in situations where you’re at high risk for getting it. However, there are exceptions to every rule, and sometimes avoidance isn’t possible.
When that happens you need to keep your wits and follow a fairly precise treatment plan. Do things right and chances are good that a frostbitten person will recover. Do things wrong and you’re talking a world of pain, gangrene, possible amputation, and maybe even death.
My mom survived with no long-term damage. though she did endure a couple of months of pain in areas where her flesh had been severely frozen.
Things could have been much, much worse.
Methods of dealing with frostbite depend upon whether you’re in the field or close to a warm shelter. Other factors – age, general health, smoking, alcohol intake, wind chill, even how warmly you are dressed – are also a consideration. It is important to keep in mind that a person with frostbite might also be enduring hypothermia, a lowering of the body’s core temperature (that’s when things really get hinky).
Just sounds lovely, doesn’t it? No wonder Florida and Arizona are so crowded.
Frostbite generally occurs on the extremities (nose, cheeks, ears, fingers, toes, etc). Your body knows it is dangerously cold and withdraws blood from these areas to keep vital organs warm and functioning. Symptoms typically begin with a “pins and needles” feeling on the affected spots, followed by numbness. If exposure to the cold continues the frostbitten areas will likely turn pale, white, or black.
If you haven’t guessed . . . black is really bad. The following are basic treatment techniques . . . a few basic dos and don’ts.
Get to a hospital
Ok, so that’s not always practical. In this case, always warm a person gradually, not quickly, if hospitalization is a non-starter.
Forget the old wives’ tales
NEVER apply snow to frostbite. Do not massage or rub the frozen skin. Do not use direct dry heat (like campfires, radiators, heating pads, etc) to warm a person. Direct heat might well cause burns to the frozen skin and tissue
Get into a warm bath (that’s 104 degrees or thereabouts)
ONLY IF CORE TEMPERATURE IS STABILIZED (see below). Remove all their clothing and jewelry and immerse them fully. Apply warm, wet cloths to frostbitten areas on the face. Keep adding and removing water to the tub, and replacing the cloths, so the temperature stays constant. You’re generally looking at 30 to 40 minutes in the tub.
The frostbite victim is going to feel sensation returning, not to mention quite a bit of pain (frostbite is similar to a burn). When the skin around the frozen area is thawed and pliable the victim can be removed from the tub, dried, and wrapped in warm blankets.
Dry, sterile dressings to frostbitten areas.
Make the victim drink plenty of warm fluids
I had my father feed my mom increasingly warmer water in which he dissolved sugar; this increases blood volume. Broth is also fine. Avoid caffeinated drinks and alcohol.
Move the frostbitten areas as little as possible
It is important that a frostbitten person receives medical attention (due to infection risks). Sooner is better than later. This is especially true if the thawed area develops blisters.
If core temperature is not stabilized, DO NOT put them in warm water
If a person’s core temperature is below 95 degrees then they are in the grip of hypothermia. The shock could stop their heart.
DO NOT thaw skin unless you’re absolutely sure it will remain thawed
If you’re in the field when frostbite occurs and you have a feeling your frostbite might relapse, at this point, your options are grim. Just keep in mind that thawing and re-freezing will only worsen the damage. Your goal at this point is to find a safe location before attempting the rewarming process.
Check out The Survival Coach for more tips on how to stay safe when the environment truly goes wild.