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It’s that time of year again when “Old Man Winter” has settled in for the winter months. Are you prepared for his visit? As the mercury drops to temperatures below freezing, individuals become vulnerable to the risk of frostbite.

Frostbite on the tip of the nose can occur before a person is even aware. “Frostbite on the face, hands, ears and feet, can occur when the skin is exposed to cold temperatures over an extended period of time,” said Michael Watts, D.O., an Emergency Services physician and Medical Director of Emergency Services at Saint John Hospital. “Once an individual has had frostbite, they are at risk of getting an even more severe case.”

Dr. Watts said the extremely cold temperatures cause the blood supply to exposed tissue to be restricted. This causes the tissue to numb or “frostnip” to begin. “A feeling of numbness, prickling and itching is a signal that a mild form of frostbite has occurred,” he said. “As frostbite progresses, the skin becomes white or yellow in color, like an ice cube, and the tissue becomes extremely cold to the touch.

“In severe cases, the skin can blister,” Dr. Watts said. “An end result of severe cases can lead to loss of toes or fingers.” He said mature adults should be especially careful when going out in the cold because as people age they do not always feel the full extent of the cold.

Dr. Watts said if frostbite is suspected, an individual should seek medical attention. If numbness to the skin is experienced, Dr. Watts warned against using hot water to regain feeling. “Hot water can cause damage to the tissue,” he said.

“People should warm their hands under their armpits or breathe through cupped hands,” he said. “If your shoes or gloves are wet, remove them; it’s important to eliminate any moisture and keep the skin warm and dry.”

Dr. Watts suggests these simple guidelines when participating in cold weather activities:

  • Stay properly dressed wearing layers of clothing
  • Keep your face, ears and feet covered and dry
  • Most important, keep your head and hands covered.

“Because the head experiences the greatest amount of heat loss, it’s important to wear hats,” Dr. Watts said.