With wind chills as low as 50 degrees below zero forecast over the next couple of days, frostbite can occur in minutes.
Frostbite is caused by cold temperatures and often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, frostbite can permanently damage the body and severe cases can lead to amputation.
Dr. John Bailey, associate professor of surgery at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, explained frostbite causes damage to tissue and more complications can occur when blood circulation is cut off due to the condition.
According to the CDC, redness or pain in any skin area is the first indication that frostbite might be developing.
“It if hurts, you’re at risk,” Bailey said, adding damage can start happening in seconds if touching metal such as shoveling snow or pushing a vehicle or in minutes for unprotected skin exposed to cold, depending on the temperature and wind chill.
As frostbite develops, the skin can turn white, bluish-white or grayish-yellow and feels unusually firm or waxy and numbness can develop.
While Bailey noted frostbite can occur at any cold temperature, polar vortexes which lead to temperatures and wind chills that are predicted for this week can greatly shorten the time period needed for frostbite to occur.
“That time you have to be out in (the cold) that could have been hours could now be as short as seconds,” Bailey said, adding those most at risk are those who are out in the cold not by choice — such as being trapped in a vehicle after a car accident — and those whose judgment is impaired, such as someone deciding to walk outside after consuming alcohol or an elderly person with dementia who wanders away from their home. In addition, he added diabetics are at a higher risk of frostbite as the medical condition causes individuals to not to respond to cold.
In the beginning stages of frostbite, when the tips of fingers or toes are starting to turn blue, Bailey said they should be warmed up immediately, with a follow-up visit or call to a doctor. However, anything beyond that suggests more cells are damaged and emergency help should be sought.
“Time is of the essence,” he said. “Time is tissue.”
In severe cases of frostbite, Bailey said the damage to the tissue can cause blood to clot in bigger blood vessels and one of the newer treatments in these cases is using a TPA, or “clot buster,” similar to what is administered during heart attacks to cause the blood to start flowing again. Blisters can form after the skin is rewarmed in more severe cases.
In cold weather, hypothermia is also a concern, as the body begins to lose heat faster than it’s produced.
According to the CDC, signs of hypothermia include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss and slurred speech drowsiness in adults and bright red, cold skin and very low energy for infants. If any of those signs are observed, the person’s temperature should be taken and, if it is below 95°F, emergency medical help should be sought.