Northwestern Medicine

When Temperatures Drop, Beware of Frostbite

Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital January 27, 2014

LAKE FOREST, IL – You have to be outside at least an hour to get frostbite, right? Wrong. Dangerously low temps have returned to the area, and before you pull on your warmest hat and gloves and head out into the cold, Chris Beach, MD, vice chair of emergency medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and chief of emergency medicine at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, provides these five ways to avoid both frostbite and the emergency room.

  • Limit your time outside. When the temperature is below zero degrees Fahrenheit (including wind chill), your bare skin can freeze in five minutes. At windchill temperatures between -20 and -69 degrees, skin can freeze in a minute. And below -70, it can freeze in just 30 seconds. Most frostbite cases, however, happen when people are exposed to freezing temperatures for a long time.
  • If you suspect you have frostbite, soak affected area in lukewarm water and get help. At the first sign of frostbite, get out of the cold and find medical attention. Don't rub an area of skin you suspect might be frostbitten or get close to a fire or source of dry heat. Frostbitten skin is numb and can get burned easily. Seek medical attention immediately.
  • Know the warning signs. These include white or grayish-yellow skin, numbness and skin that feels firm or waxy. Remember frostbite is most likely to affect body parts that are farther away from the body core and, therefore, have less blood flow. These include your feet, toes, hands, fingers, nose and ears.
  • Who's watching the kids? Children are more likely to get frostbite because they lose heat from their skin faster than adults. They're also more likely to stay outside too long even though it's very cold. Children should limit their time outside—but if they have to go out, they should dress in layered, loose-fitting clothes, insulated boots, hats and gloves or mittens.
  • Dress for warmth, not fashion. Dress in layers, which use trapped air as insulation. The CDC says you should wear an inner layer of wool, silk, or polypropylene. The outer layer should be wind-resistant so you don't lose body heat from the wind. A water-repellent fabric will protect you from moisture, which can chill the body very quickly. Mittens may limit your Smartphone texting abilities but they provide better protection in the cold.
Read more tips on when to seek emergency care, visit Northwestern Medicine's Emergency Medicine.

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