Podiatrist in San Leandro, CA
Foot Doctor of the East Bay
1300 Bancroft Ave
San Leandro, CA 94577
(510) 483-3390
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Even in the dead of winter, Bay Area residents aren’t used to freezing temperatures. Unfortunately, this can mean that coastal California natives aren’t fully prepared when traveling to colder climes. Severe frostbite can cause permanent damage to toes and other extremities, so it’s important to understand the risks and take necessary precautions.

Frostbite Definition and Causes

Frostbite is the freezing of skin and other body tissues. Cold weather slows circulation, and when blood can’t deliver heat to affected areas, ice crystals form inside your body. These crystals, ultimately, lead to permanent tissue death. In severe cases, damage can reach all layers of skin, nerves, muscles, tendons, and even bone. Extremities such as toes, fingers, noses, and ears are most vulnerable.

The colder and windier the environment, the greater the danger. With a windchill of 15 to 20 below (Fahrenheit), frostbite can develop in less than half an hour.

Symptoms and Stages

Frostbite progresses in stages, so you’ll notice something is wrong before the cold has time to do permanent damage. In the first stage, called frostnip, your skin will feel very cold and change color, become either paler or reddish. You will feel a prickling sensation as numbness sets in. Getting inside at this point eliminates the risk of lasting consequences.

The second stage is called “superficial frostbite” and at this point the top layers of skin begin to sustain permanent damage. As the skin loses all sensitivity you may even start to feel warm—this is actually a bad sign. Skin turns whitish or pale; rewarming at this stage will cause it to change to blue or purplish and may result in blistering within a day or two.

As the damage progresses further, “deep frostbite” begins to affect subcutaneous skin layers and beyond. Complete numbness and extreme reduction in range of motion due to failing muscles and joints are common symptoms. Skin eventually turns black as the tissues die; risk of gangrene and infection is high.

Thawing and Treating Frozen Skin

The first step is to get out of the cold. Go inside and remove any wet or tight clothing. If you can’t get indoors right away, protect exposed skin as best you can by putting hands into armpits or covering your face. Try not to walk on damaged toes.

For frostnip, getting indoors and warming up gradually is usually all you need, but if frostbite has truly set in you’ll need to take more drastic measures to thaw frozen skin as quickly as possible. If you can get to a healthcare facility immediately, do so. If not, submerge the affected areas into a warm, circulating tub of water (between 100 and 108 degrees Fahrenheit) for 20 minutes or more, until tissues are completely thawed. This process can be very painful, but it is necessary to prevent further damage. Afterward, dress and protect the area loosely and get to a hospital as soon as possible.

Preventing the Bite

Take care to limit your exposure to cold, windy, and wet conditions. Dress in plenty of loose, insulating layers and fully cover your ears, head, and hands. When it comes to your feet, winter boots with insulating socks and sock liners that wick away moisture are an absolute must. Try to keep moving—activity will keep you warmer and keep your blood pumping.

If you know you might be stuck outside for a while, always be prepared. Carry extra layers (or even a full extra change of clothes) and emergency supplies, let others know where you’re going, and make sure you have a means to contact help.

Providing Post-Frostbite Care

Recovering from frostbite can be a difficult and painful process. Once the skin has fully thawed, other measures such as removal of dead tissues (debridement), wound care, blister care, or surgery may be required. You may even need to have a toe amputated to prevent gangrene and infection from spreading to other tissues.

If you ever need help, call Foot Doctor of the East Bay at (510) 483-3390. Our talented foot doctors can assist you with managing painful symptoms and restoring your feet to the fullest health possible. Visit us in San Leandro, Pleasanton, or Los Gatos, CA.

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