Arctic Blast Increases Risk of Frostbite, Hypothermia

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Repetitive warming and freezing can cause ice crystals in the tissue, which only multiplies the damage done to the frostbitten skin.

Either way, the re-warming process can be quite painful, so doctors encourage frostbite sufferers to go to the emergency room, where the warming process can be treated in a controlled setting.

Emergency doctors usually soak the frostbitten area in warm, not hot, water. Pain medication is administered to patients as necessary. Physicians monitor the area for evidence of blisters or infection.

"We treat severe frostbite much like a burn," said Schneider. "We wait to see how deep the area is involved, and we'll sometimes use skin grafts. If the area is beyond salvageable, we'll prepare for an amputation."

Cold Hands Clinic

Patients with poor circulation, like those who suffer from diabetes, Raynaud's disease, lupus and scleroderma, may have an increased risk of frostnip and frostbite.

The University of Chicago Medical Center launched the Cold Hand Clinic last month, to help diagnose and treat patients with cold hand problems.

"When we first thought about this idea, we wanted to join together to establish a clinic that provides a comprehensive assessment of these cases," said Dr. Nadera Sweiss, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center and an expert member of the Cold Hand Clinic physician team.

Treatment options at the clinic are highly individualized, said Sweiss.

"We start with prevention, and look at how patients can protect their hands," said Sweiss. "If that doesn't work, we go onto medication."

Most of the physicians will first administer calcium channel blockers, drugs that are often used to treat high blood pressure, heart pain and abnormal heart rhythms. If those don't work, doctors will look into other medications, like antidepressants, blood thinners, and even Botox and Viagra.

"Theoretically, the idea is that these medications help improve blood flow," said Sweiss. "But everything has side effects, especially since everything is off-label."

Sweiss said that the success rate for the various medications ranges from 30 to 50 percent in cold hand patients, and she stressed that the use of these medications for cold hand treatments is not FDA approved and proper clinical trials research for cold hand conditions are limited.

Hypothermia

Along with frostbite, hypothermia is another cold weather condition that can be dangerous to people unprepared for the weather.

Dr. Richard Bradley, associate professor of emergency medicine and chief of EMS and disaster medicine at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, reiterated the importance of keeping warm when temperatures plummet.

"The onset of hypothermia can be very difficult to detect," said Bradley. "We lose a lot of people every year from it, because people often don't realize they're becoming hypothermic."

Hypothermia occurs when body temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

"As the body temperature goes down, people will begin to shiver in order for the body to generate heat," said Marshall. "As the body temperature falls below 90 degrees, shivering stops and body can no longer regulate temperature. "

Other symptoms of hypothermia include clumsiness and confusion, drowsiness, a weak pulse and shallow breathing.

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