What is frostbite and who is at risk?

Spring may be just around the corner but in plenty of regions across the U.S. the temperatures continue to drop into the freezing range, putting millions of Americans at risk for a myriad of health issues, including frostbite. While some may believe the condition is temporary, it can actually lead to long-term or chronic health issues.

“Frostbite is a severe injury to a body part or parts resulting from freezing of the soft tissue,” Dr. Amalia Cochran, director of the Burn Center at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Fox News. “Fingers and hands, toes and feet, and nose are the most commonly affected areas.”

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Signs that you may be in danger of developing frostbite can include cold, numb skin that “feels hard and looks pale or waxy,” Cochran said, adding that fingers or toes that become hard to move may be affected. Blisters may also appear on the skin once the impacted areas are warmed up.

If you suspect frostbite, you should be seen by a health care professional immediately so that they can attempt to save the damaged tissue. Cochran said that if treatment occurs within 24 hours of the injury, doctors may attempt to use a “clot-busting” drug to minimize damage. However, once the 24-hour window has ended, treatment options become limited.

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Cochran said those who are exposed to cold or wet environments for long periods of time are most at risk for developing the condition, which can include people with mental illness or housing issues. She added that being under the influence of alcohol or drugs can also put people at an increased risk for frostbite because of “impaired sensation and impaired judgment.”

In order to avoid frostbite this winter season, Cochran advises against staying out in the cold for too long, and wearing the appropriate clothes.

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“If you plan to be out in cold weather, layers of clothing can be really helpful,” she said. “Carry emergency supplies in case you end up getting stuck somewhere in the cold.”