Frostbite is tissue damage sustained by prolonged or extreme exposure to cold temperatures. The tissue in this case refers to the epidermis, or skin layers. When the skin is exposed to temperatures of 32 degrees Fahrenheit or below, the vessels next to the skin surface begin to shrink and constrict. This causes shunting, a condition where the blood is whisked away from limbs and other parts of the body away from the thoracic cavity, or chest.
Shunting is a necessary survival response to the cold. You may have seen episodes of shunting when, for example, someone’s car plunges into an icy river or body of water. The person may be lying unconscious in the water for almost an hour, yet they live. This is called the mammalian dive reflex, and is a type of shunting. The body (to preserve itself and survive) removes the blood from the extremities and sends it to the core (heart, lungs, and thorax).
In this manner with frostbite, the body (and sort of “mistakenly” so) wishes to protect from the cold in a survival response: the body is willing to sacrifice the extremity to ensure the survival of the individual as a whole. The loss/transfer of blood from these extremities (especially the limbs and the feet and hands) causes the freezing and eventual necrosis (tissue death) of these areas. Frostbite is measured in degrees, and they are as follows:
With third degree frostbite, there are blisters that become purple and then turn black. The blisters are filled with blood, and the affected areas may need to be amputated. Those who have health factors such as diabetes and are taking certain medications such as beta-blockers place people at high risk for this affliction.
Treatment of Frostbite
Treatment can be effected by rewarming the afflicted body part or parts by two methods:
1) Passive Rewarming – this is accomplished by either using room temperature of a warm structure, or by body heat (the patient’s own, or another person providing first aid). Addition of warm clothing and use of blankets are also part of this method.
2) Active Rewarming – this is where heat is directly applied to a person. Such is accomplished after the steps to passive rewarming have been undertaken. Immersion of the affected tissues in a water bath between 104-108 degrees Fahrenheit is the preferred method. Such is undertaken because the more quickly the affected tissue is rewarmed, the less potential there is for a permanent cold weather injury and damages that are affected in the long-term.
As the first-line first aid provider, follow this rule: DO NOT MASSAGE OR RUB THE AFFECTED AREA! Ice crystals can form in the tissue that has been frozen, and any kind of movement such as rubbing or other physical actions can cause the ice crystals to further damage the tissues.
Keep your patient warm. Keep them dry and covered, and make sure their clothing is not too tight or restrictive so as to prevent circulation. As we have covered in other articles, continuously monitor and reassess the patient!
JJ’s rule: When treating any condition, always monitor and reassess for shock.
Remember: a patient can “crash” when they have been affected by severe trauma such as a severe case of frostbite. They have been weakened by exposure and the trauma. “Crashing” is when their vital signs (temperature, pulse, blood pressure, etc.) take a “nose dive” and the patient slips into shock. Shock kills! It is an insidious enemy that can always creep up on you to ally itself with the injury. Please remember this always.
There are many ways, as well as tools to prevent frostbite, and prevention is the number one objective you need to strive for. Here are a few methods for you to file away:
Here are some steps for treating frostbite:
Remember with all of this that you must seek medical attention immediately. Take them to a doctor or a hospital as quickly as possible. Frostbite is treatable and it is best defeated by proper prevention and planning prior to your outdoor excursions. Enjoy yourself the most by preparing yourself beforehand. Have a great day!
Jeremiah Johnson is the Nom de plume of a retired Green Beret of the United States Army Special Forces (Airborne). Mr. Johnson was a Special Forces Medic, EMT and ACLS-certified, with comprehensive training in wilderness survival, rescue, and patient-extraction. He is a Certified Master Herbalist and a graduate of the Global College of Natural Medicine of Santa Ana, CA. A graduate of the U.S. Army’s survival course of SERE school (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape), Mr. Johnson also successfully completed the Montana Master Food Preserver Course for home-canning, smoking, and dehydrating foods.
Mr. Johnson dries and tinctures a wide variety of medicinal herbs taken by wild crafting and cultivation, in addition to preserving and canning his own food. An expert in land navigation, survival, mountaineering, and parachuting as trained by the United States Army, Mr. Johnson is an ardent advocate for preparedness, self-sufficiency, and long-term disaster sustainability for families. He and his wife survived Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Cross-trained as a Special Forces Engineer, he is an expert in supply, logistics, transport, and long-term storage of perishable materials, having incorporated many of these techniques plus some unique innovations in his own homestead.
Mr. Johnson brings practical, tested experience firmly rooted in formal education to his writings and to our team. He and his wife live in a cabin in the mountains of Western Montana with their three cats.
This information has been made available by Ready Nutrition