The environment is not always a perfectly habitable place, and we often have to take precautions when heading out into the elements. When cold weather hits, we might think a nice pair of socks and boots can be enough. Circumstances, however, can still lead to a case of frostbite on the toes and feet. To know how to address these risks, it’s important to understand how this dangerous condition develops.
Frostbite is quite literally the freezing of the skin and underlying soft tissues of the body. The toes, much like the fingers, nose, and other extremities, can be particularly susceptible to freezing. This is due to their relative distance from the body’s core. As the body reacts to cold temperatures, it tends to constrict blood vessels in the extremities to keep more blood in the core. It’s a survival measure, but the reduced circulation in the arms, legs, and other areas creates a greater risk of freezing there.
Frostbite develops in three stages:
Frostnip is a mild freezing that does not cause any permanent damage to the skin. There will be some paleness or redness, and sometimes a prickling sensation or numbness in the area. As the skin returns to warmth, the pain or tingling may temporarily appear or increase.
Superficial frostbite is when ice crystals might begin forming in the skin, even if it still feels soft. Skin that is rewarmed at this stage may begin to look swollen, blue, purple, or mottled, and be accompanied by a burning or stinging pain. Blisters may form 1-2 days after the skin has regained warmth.
Severe frostbite sinks into the deeper layers of the skin ad tissues. Complete numbness may occur in the area, and affected joints and muscles may no longer work. Large blisters may once again form 1-2 days after rewarming, but the skin will later turn a distinctive black color as tissue dies.
Taking Care in the Cold
Simply wearing socks and boots is not always enough to ward off the effects of frostbite, especially if the weather has become deeply cold or the feet have become wet. Still, it’s best to guard oneself as best as possible. If you go outside in the cold often, invest in good socks that wick moisture away and provide insulating warmth without constricting blood flow to your feet. Boots should also have insulating properties and guard against moisture from the outside.
If you must spend extended period in the cold, be sure to stay hydrated. Drink plenty of fluids and avoid alcohol, smoking, and caffeine. If you are near adequate shelter, take breaks regularly to warm up and inspect your feet, extremities, and clothing. Bring dry, warm clothes to change into, if possible. Keeping consistent tabs on the condition of your feet is especially important if you have diabetes, poor circulation, or any other condition that might cause pre-existing numbness in that area.
If there are signs of either superficial or severe frostbite, it is very important to find treatment as soon as possible. Constricting or wet clothing should be removed as soon as you are able to come out of the cold. If you cannot receive immediate care, do not rub at the affected area for warmth. Instead, administer first aid by soaking the feet in very warm but not hot water for 15-30 minutes—but only if there is no risk that the skin might refreeze. Avoid walking on the area as much as possible unless you are far from help.
Moderate to severe frostbite is an emergency situation, and the experts at Family Foot Care & Surgery can provide you the advice and direction you need during such a risky time. Call our Milford office at (203) 876-7736 or our Hamden office at (230) 288-4055 during normal hours if you need help. Otherwise, seek emergency care.