At Iridia, many of our paramedics work in remote oil and gas camps in northern British Columbia. We encourage them to be prepared for whatever they may come across in these regions. Lately, frostbite has been a key concern.
In recent days much of Canada has been dowsed in northern-like temperatures. With temperatures reaching -30°C in some areas, it’s important for everyone to understand symptoms and causes of frostbite.
Frostbite occurs when the skin and body tissue just underneath it freezes. Your skin becomes very cold, then numb, hard and pale. Frostbite typically affects smaller, more exposed areas of your body, such as your fingers and ears.
What are the stages of frostbite?
The first stage of frostbite is frostnip — a mild form of frostbite in which your skin turns red and feels very cold. Frostnip doesn’t do permanent damage.
The second stage of frostbite appears as reddened skin that turns white or very pale. The skin may remain soft, but some ice crystals may form in the tissue. Skin may begin to feel deceptively warm — a sign of serious skin involvement.
As frostbite progresses, it affects all layers of the skin, including the tissues that lie below. Deceptive numbness may occur in which all sensation of cold, pain or discomfort is lost. Joints or muscles may no longer work. Afterward, the area turns black and hard as the tissue dies.
What are the symptoms of frostbite?
- A slightly painful, prickly or itching sensation
- White or grayish-yellow skin
- Hard or waxy-looking skin
- A cold or burning feeling
- Clumsiness due to joint stiffness
- Blistering, in severe cases
What are the causes of frostbite?
Frostbite occurs in two ways:
Frostbite can occur in conjunction with hypothermia — a condition in which your body loses heat faster than it produces heat, causing dangerously low body temperature. When core body temperature lowers, it decreases circulation and threatens vital organs. This triggers a “life over limb” response, meaning your body protects vital organs, sometimes at the expense of extremities. With decreased circulation, your body temperature lowers and the tissue freezes at -2C.
Frostbite can also occur with direct contact. If you’re in direct contact with something very cold, such as ice or metal, heat is conducted away from your body. Such exposure lowers the temperature of the skin and freezes the tissue.
As always, stay safe. If you experience any of the symptoms above, seek medical attention. For more information, head over to CBC to learn more about frostbite and how it affects you at different wind-chill levels.