Arctic Blast Increases Risk of Frostbite, Hypothermia

Doctor warn people to prepare as the arctic blast snaps its way through the day.

ByABC News
January 24, 2011, 3:15 PM

Jan. 25, 2011— -- Dr. Sandra Schneider, professor and chair emeritus of the department of emergency medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, has seen her share of frostbite cases. Some were so bad that patients arrived with extremities filled with blood blisters, and left with amputated fingers and toes.

Schneider recalled one instance about 10 years ago, when a patient's hand had gotten stuck in a freezer.

"I guess his hand was wet and it went against the ice in the freezer and got stuck," said Schneider. "It was a new apartment and he didn't know what to do, so he turned off the refrigerator and waited for it all to melt."

When the man finally appeared in Schneider's emergency room, he had a frostbitten blistered area the size of a quarter on the back of his hand.

"We treated the patient as we do in normal frostbite cases: with warm water and some mild pain medication," said Schneider.

Now, as many Americans feel the arctic blast moving across the country, doctors are warning people to take extra care in bundling up and staying out of the cold.

A day like today can bring on health problems in a matter of moments. Frostbite, in particular, is a major threat; it can occur in under a minute at extremely cold temperatures. The term is shorthand for the literal freezing of body tissue, usually skin. The most vulnerable areas to frostbite include fingers, toes, noses, cheeks and ears.

According to the National Weather Service, frostbite can occur within 5 minutes in temperatures between 0 degrees and -19 degrees Fahrenheit.

"When the wind chill factor starts heading toward zero degrees, frostbite becomes a very real hazard for anyone caught outside, unprepared for wind and frigid temperatures," said Dr. Lewis Marshall, chairman of emergency medicine at Brookdale University Hospital Medical Center, in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The initial stage of frostbite usually affects the top skin layers and does not lead to long-term damage. As freezing continues, second-degree frostbite may set in. The skin can become hard and waxy, and blisters may form a day or two after the freezing.

Third degree frostbite consists of a deep frostbite, where the skin turns blue or black, and the muscles, nerves and vessels have all frozen as well. The area is temporarily debilitated, and, in some cases, permanently damaged.

In extreme cases of frostbite, the area can be infected with gangrene, where the affected body part will eventually fall off if it is not amputated first.

"If you get frostbite, especially second degree or above, you should be very careful for the next year," said Dr. Schneider. "It takes a good 12 months for that to heal, and there can be a great deal of tissue and nerve damage."

Dr. Jeffrey Sankoff, an emergency medicine physician in Denver, said that the most common mistake frostbite sufferers make is in what they wear outside.