The mortal dangers of frostbite

It can happen anywhere. One minute you’re skating, snowboarding or passed out on your front lawn in December, and then suddenly you’re limping in pain. You rip off your shoes and socks and are confronted with hard, white, frozen toes. Yep, you’ve just been hit by frostbite, one of the season’s most dangerous cohorts.

“It can begin with a lack of feeling in the affected area,” said Warren Wittman, a former University of Calgary Snowboarding Club executive and current first aid instructor. “But it can also be quite painful before that.”

Other warning signs can include skin that appears waxy, discoloured (flushed, white, yellow or blue) and cold to the touch.

“Sometimes you don’t really get a sign at all though, and that’s the problem,” said U of C Outdoor Centre Manager Albi Sole. “People need to be monitoring their feet in particular, and recognize when cold feet are becoming frozen feet. If they feel cold, but you can still feel the ends, you’re ok. If you can’t feel the ends, they are freezing.”

According to Sole, the most common place to get frostbite is on the exposed skin of the face, nose and cheeks. But ears, toes and fingers seem to be the first places to become more seriously affected.

“Really at any temperature below zero degrees Celsius there is potential,” said Wittman. “If it’s colder than -10 chances go way up.”

If you cannot feel any sensation in the affected body part, it’s best to seek treatment immediately. Wittman recommends immersing the body part in luke-warm water until it feels warmer, then, bandaging it with a dry, sterile non-stick dressing. Severe cases should get to a doctor.

Wittman warned never to rub an area with frostbite as the skin and body tissues can break in some cases.

The worst cases of frostbite can involve frozen extremities appearing black and swollen. They can blister and toenail loss can occur.

“Frostbite generally sucks,” said Wittman.

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