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Column: Frostbite can happen quickly. Here's how to avoid it

Dr. William Mohr

Dr. William Mohr is a burn surgeon at the Regions Hospital Burn Center in St. Paul

As one of only two verified burn centers in Minnesota and just four across the upper Midwest, the Regions Hospital Burn Center team is proud to provide the highest level of care for patients in the Twin Cities and for those up to hundreds of miles away. Along with treating injuries from incidents including fires, scalding water or even explosions, we also treat patients for frostbite, including over 90 patients last winter.

As we head into another Minnesota winter, one of the best ways to help lower this number is by spreading awareness and making sure we all know the best ways to prevent it. Living here, we get used to these bitter temps each winter. But unfortunately, this familiarity can also be our downfall.

What is frostbite?

Frostbite is actually considered a type of burn that happens when the skin and tissues below it begin to freeze. It's usually the result of skin being exposed to temperatures below the freezing mark.

Depending on how serious frostbite is, there can be some long-term effects. For less serious cases, body parts affected by frostbite may be more sensitive to the cold. But sometimes, patients experience life-long numbness in these areas. And in severe cases, amputation is needed if blood flow to the skin is permanently blocked.

How long does it take to set in?

The colder it gets, the faster you get frostbite. And when you add wind and water, the process speeds up even more. Every person and every situation is different, but here are a few guidelines to know:

• Once subzero temps hit, it takes about 30 minutes for exposed skin to get frostbite.

• At 15 below with a little bit of wind, frostbite is possible within 15 minutes.

What are the symptoms?

Your fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin are the most common places for frostbite. Here's what the first signs of it look and feel like:

• Skin starts to become cold with a pins and needles sensation.

• Increasing loss of feeling and numbness.

• Skin turns pale, blue or grayish in color.

• Skin feels stiff or rubbery to the touch.

Knowing these early symptoms can help you treat frostbite fast and have the best outcome. In severe cases of frostbite, blisters can develop after rewarming the skin and affected areas.

Preparation is key

Many times, the frostbite happened when patients were out doing ordinary tasks that just didn't go as planned. Getting stranded in the cold in a stalled or wrecked vehicle tends to be a common situation. So if you plan to leave the outdoors when it's below zero, remember to be prepared by expecting the unexpected. Here are my top four prevention tips:

• Dress (or pack) for success. Whether you're planning to spend the whole day outdoors or are just heading to the grocery store, make sure you're wearing (and/or bringing along) the right clothes. The best choices are clothes made of wool, down or Thinsulate — all which prevent the loss of body heat. And don't forget a warm hat, mittens and pair of boots. Think you have enough layers? Add one or two more!

• Carry your cellphone with you. Most of us do this anyway, but it's still a good reminder in case of an emergency situation. Don't assume you'll be able to reach someone if don't have a phone with you.

• Remain calm if you find yourself exposed to extreme cold. Fear can cause sweating, which cools the body and can make you feel chilled. To get your blood moving and make body heat, whirl your arms around like a windmill. But be careful not to be so active that you sweat.

• Know what to do if you get frostbite. Mild frostbite can be treated at home. Do not rub or massage frozen skin but rather soak the affected area in warm water (99-108 degrees) for 15 to 30 minutes. If this doesn't seem to be working (and/or your skin starts to blister and pain increases), go to the Emergency Department for treatment.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this column misstated the number of burn centers in the region.