Frostbite occurs when the body automatically shuts down cold-affected areas to prevent further heat loss from the bodies’ core, so that vital organs can still function. Recognisable in early stages by pale numb-looking skin, and a rapid progressive lack of feeling in the affected area. Loss of life and limb is a real possibility in later stages.
When Frostbite strikes away from easily accessible medical help, such as remote mountainous terrain, the immediate action taken can often be the difference between life and death. Frostbite can occur in a matter of minutes as soon as the temperature drops below freezing. Frostbite accelerates in relation to the time exposed to low temperature and is exacerbated by any local wind chill factor. Early recognition and action can make a big difference to personal wellbeing.
1. Remove the causality from the exposed environment as soon as possible. Take shelter in a snow hole or tent; keep out of the wind to eliminate wind chill factor.
2. Remove all wet clothing, dry and dress in dry warm clothing as quickly as possible to reverse extreme heat loss.
3. Shared body warmth is a great help once you have managed to dry the casualty. It is a common practice survival technique to share a sleeping bag and slowly raise the casualties’ core body temperature.
4. Use moist heat (warm water) to warm the casualty, rather than dry heat (radiator or fire). Dry heat can cause more damage.
5. Raise the patient’s body temperature in a warm (not hot) bath. This will help to avoid sudden intense changes in temperature which could cause more damage.
6. Be aware of both your own and the casualties mental and physical state. Extreme cold temperature exposure reduces reaction time and a person’s ability to act in a rational manner. Act quickly against irrational behaviour and prevent the situation becoming worse.
7. Working for short burst periods of time will be better than working for one long period of time. Taking regular breaks and eating food high in calories will reduce the time exposed to cold temperatures.
8. If frostbite has occurred, don’t rub the affected area with snow as this will make it worse.
9. Don’t warm the casualty if there is a chance the affected area could become frozen again, because you are unable to take shelter or the location of the casualty is to hazardous for example.
10. Avoid going out in the extreme cold alone. If you fall, or have an accident alone in a remote or dangerous location, the chance of rescue is reduced. Working in teams is far safer and more productive.
Frostbite can be avoided in most circumstances. Key factors are a healthy respect for natural cold environments, proper preparation, the right clothing and minimising the time spent out in the cold.