While our bodies are capable of adapting to a wide range of temperatures, the extremes of heat and cold result in tissue damage that, if left unchecked, can become irreversible and permanent. Extreme heat results in burns, while exposure to extremely low temperatures for extended periods of time can result in frostbite. Frostbite occurs when your body shuts off circulation to the extremities (your fingers and toes most especially) in order to conserve body heat in the essential organs. The loss of circulation leads to tissue damage, which can in turn lead to gangrene and necrosis of the affected extremities. Here is how to treat cases of frostbite.
- Prevention is always better than cure. You can avoid getting frostbite in the first place by ensuring that you are protected from the extreme cold. This involves staying in environments that conserve heat, as well as wearing the appropriate safety gear, such as thick mitts and gloves specially designed for winter or for ice climbing. Remember that frostbite may result in permanent damage despite best efforts of treatment, so it is best that you avoid having the condition in the first place.
- Start by taking any over the counter medication for pain. Frostbite is an extremely painful condition due to the damage to the sensitive nerve endings on the extremities. This pain will persist even as you correct the frostbite, so make sure that you give adequate pain relief. Medications that can be used (barring any allergies or adverse reactions) include acetaminophen (paracetamol), ibuprofen, mefenamic acid, cox-2 inhibitors (e.g., celecoxib) and tramadol.
- You will need to restore circulation to the frostbitten areas by changing the environment from cold to warm. Boil some water and pour it into a container large enough to contain the frostbitten area. DO NOT PLACE ANY PART OF YOUR BODY INTO BOILING WATER. This will result in scald injuries, which will only aggravate the injuries from the cold. Frostbitten areas are NOT frozen! Do NOT try to “melt” them with hot water. Make sure that the water is lukewarm to slightly warm before you begin soaking. You can dilute the boiling water with cool water to faster achieve the lukewarm temperature.
- Keep changing the water. The water in the container will eventually cool down, especially when exposed to the frostbitten areas, so you will have to ensure a constant supply of warm water for soaking the frostbitten area.
- Using the body’s own heat is a safe way of restoring normal circulation. Aside from using the tubs of hot water, you can promote increased circulation to the extremities by increasing the ambient temperature of the environment. Do this by bringing the frostbitten person indoors, and covering him with thick blankets and comforters. This will not only protect him from the cold, it will reset his body’s core temperature point to a higher one, encouraging blood flow to the frostbitten areas.
All the tips mentioned here are only temporizing measures until a qualified and properly trained medical professional can arrive on the scene. Nothing beats the supportive care given by a physician. It will be ideal to wrap the patient up and bring him to the emergency room as soon as possible. The earlier professional treatment is initiated, the greater the chance that the frostbitten area can return to normal.