When Jack Frost is nipping at your nose, that’s often an early sign of frostbite. Frostbite is burning cold—the cold weather produces effects on your body surprisingly similar to being burned. The cold causes the water in your skin cells to freeze and expand, causing damage to the cells. Extreme temperatures or long exposure times can cause similar damage in other organs, and more severe damage to the skin. In addition, the low temperatures cause blood vessels to contract, making circulation harder, and causing injuries that way.
Warning signs of frostbite include gray, white or yellow skin, which will be numb and feel waxy. You may also have a pins-and-needles feeling in the effected area. If you think you have frostbite, get in from the cold as soon as possible, make sure you’re wearing warm, dry clothes, and hold the area under warm, but not hot, water. If you’ve been exposed for a ,long time, or if you can’t get and stay in a warm environment, it’s important to get medical attention right away. Very long exposure can affect the bones, or cause gangrene to set in, in which case amputation may be needed.
As with many conditions, prevention is better and more effective that treatment. You’re only as warm as tour coldest part, so the best way to prevent frostbite is to bundle up as best you can, and not expose any skin to the cold if you don’t have to. The colder the temperatures, the more important it is to get covered, and people who are particularly sensitive to cold—such as people who have had frostbite in the past, people taking beta blockers or some other medications, or people with certain medical conditions such as diabetes—should be particularly sure to minimize exposure to the cold.
For example, there is a fashion for half-gloves that make it possible to use cell-phone touch screens and other hand-held devices. Unfortunately, doctors are warning, by leaving the fingers exposed, these gloves don’t actually protect the fingers. Worse, fingers are already among the body parts most prone to frostbite. As the body gets colder, the extremities, such as the fingers and toes, are the first to be affected and are likely to experience the most severe damage.