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Bart Hobson column: Frostbite requires special care

5:01 PM, Jan. 4, 2013  |  Comments
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Question: What is frostbite?

Answer: In the last column, I talked about hypothermia, a medical emergency. Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing and causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation.

At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin area, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin - frostbite could be beginning. Any of the following signs might indicate frostbite:

? A white or grayish-yellow skin area.

? Skin that feels unusually firm or waxy.

? Numbness. Note: A victim often is unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because the frozen tissues are numb.

If you detect symptoms of frostbite, seek medical care. Because frostbite and hypothermia both result from exposure, first determine whether the victim also shows signs of hypothermia: shivering/exhaustion, confusion/fumbling hands, memory loss/slurred speech or drowsiness.

If there is frostbite but no sign of hypothermia and immediate medical care is not available, proceed as follows:

? Get into a warm room as soon as possible.

? Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes, because this increases the damage.

? Immerse the affected area in warm - not hot - water, comfortable to the touch for unaffected skin, or warm the affected area using body heat. For example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers.

? Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it at all. This can cause more damage.

? Don't use a heating pad, heat lamp or the heat of a stove, fireplace or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can easily be burned. Under no circumstances should you allow a frostbitten area to refreeze, for that will markedly increase the tissue damage. The frozen area should not be rewarmed until there is no chance it will be refrozen.

Dr. Bart Hobson is an urgent care physician at Marshfield Clinic Wausau and Weston centers. This column provides health information and is not intended to be medical advice or a substitute for care from your health care provider.

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