Frostbite Can Happen in Minutes

What to do to prevent frostbite
Frostbite Thermometer

When outside temperatures plummet to sub-zero and wind chills dip into negative numbers, you might be surprised how quickly frostbite can happen.

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Emergency room physician Stephen Meldon, MD, says frostbite could occur as rapidly as in 10 minutes when skin is exposed to temps that are 10 degrees below zero.

“If people don’t realize how cold it is, frostbite can come faster than they expect,” Dr. Meldon says. “When the temperature is below zero, it’s easy to miscalculate how long it’s safe to be outside because frostbite can happen so quickly.”

This is why it’s important, Dr. Meldon says, to dress defensively in frigid weather. Make sure to cover as much skin as possible and monitor your exposed skin for frostbite.

“The medical risk and danger really is exposure,” Dr. Meldon says. “So cover up.”

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Frostbite and frostnip

Frostnip is an early stage of frostbite and the most common. Frostnip involves the surface of the skin, usually on the nose, ears, cheeks, fingers and toes. Symptoms are flushed or reddened skin that might be accompanied by a tingling or burning sensation.

Dr. Meldon recommends that you go indoors at the first sign of skin redness or pain.

Frostbite is more serious but can be reversed without lasting damage if identified early. With frostbite, the skin becomes firm, white and waxy while the tissue beneath remains soft and pliable.

Deep frostbite means skin discoloration, blisters and flesh that feels extremely thick. This level of frostbite can cause permanent damage and warrants an immediate trip to the emergency department.

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Frostnip and early frostbite can be treated at home by submerging the skin in warm — not hot — water. That means water temperature of about 100 degrees. Do not rub or massage the frostbitten skin.

It might be painful as the skin warms. If the pain is extreme, go to the emergency department for medical evaluation.

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