Frostnip, Frostbite, Chilblain
and Emergency Preparedness
by Brenda J Jensen
Frostnip is moisture freezing on the skin's surface, often
resulting in a reddish coloring and mild swelling, and feels very cold.
Continued exposure leads to prickling and numbness in the affected area. As your
skin warms, you may feel pain and tingling. Frostnip doesn't permanently damage
Frostbite is more serious and penetrates underneath the skin. The Mayo Clinic
states, "When exposed to very cold temperatures, skin and underlying tissues may
freeze, resulting in frostbite. The areas most likely to be affected by
frostbite are your hands, feet, nose and ears." When cold, the body naturally
pulls blood flow back towards the core to protect the internal organs. Thus,
extremities are left to fend for themselves. Ice crystal formation and lack of
blood flow will result in swelling and skin discoloration, appearing grey or a
waxy white, becomes stiff, numb, and cold when touched. Get out of the cold,
remove wet clothes and warm up slowly. Never rub the frostbite areas, as this
will cause damage to the affected tissue. Never use direct heat, such as a
stove, heat lamp, fireplace or heating pad, because these can cause burns before
you feel them on your numb skin. Warm (no more than 107° F) water is good for
the extremities. Wrap your body in a warm blanket. Once someone has had
frostbite, they are more likely to get it again.
Chilblains, often confused with frostbite, is a non-freezing, cold, tissue
injury that occurs when exposed to cold and humidity. Cold exposure damages
capillary bed in the skin resulting in redness, swelling, blisters, itching,
prickly sensation, and numbness. While painful, it does little or no permanent
damage. Medical attention is usually not necessary. Wear warm socks and don't
apply a water bottle or other heat source. It will feel itchy but don't scratch
the area. Chilblains can be prevented by keeping the feet and hands warm in cold
If you find yourself lost or trapped while skiing, snowmobiling, camping or
hunting there are things you can do to protect yourself from the conditions
above. First of all, never go without a First Aid Kit and always carry a small
pack of survival articles, such as extra socks and gloves, some snacks, a
collapsible shovel, some heat sources (e.g. chemically activated hand warmers),
and something to start a fire (lighter and fluid or cotton balls and Vaseline).
A winter survival pack would be the best. Make your own or buy a pre-made kit.
Use the most abundant winter element, snow, as your shelter. Snow is an
insulator. Depending on the materials available in your outdoor environment, a
snow cave shelter is typically the most effective shelter in cold weather. When
building a snow cave shelter, make sure you have:
• Thick Walls - At least one foot thick.
• An Arched Roof - This will add strength to the structure and allow melted snow
to drain down the sides. Make sure it is high enough for you to sit upright.
• An Entrance "Door" - Mostly close off the entrance of the cave with branches,
a block of snow or whatever material is available. This will help keep out the
elements and allow for ventilation. If you have food and a fire, make the
entrance area your designated cooking area.
• Ventilation Shaft -Make sure the shaft penetrates through the roof of the snow
cave and does not get clogged. Without ventilation the result can be carbon
monoxide poisoning and death.
• A Sleeping Platform - Using pine boughs or a blanket should do. It should be
higher than the entrance, away from the wall and if you can, dig a small trench
between the platform and the wall, so you and your equipment can avoid getting
wet from any melting snow.
Avoid eating snow or ice. The body will expend a lot of energy melting the ice
and snow to turn it into water. This takes away from body heat. Also, internal
cold injuries can occur. Frostbite to the tongue or throat can occur. In a
survival situation, always melt ice or snow to make water. Use a container (e.g.
canteen, bottle, camp pot) to pack snow into and place near your fire or in the
sun next to a rock.
If your clothes soak through to the skin, remove those items of clothes. That's
assuming you have a dry place (remember the platform above) to stay out of the
snow. If you're with somebody, now is not the time for modesty. Survival is the
top priority. The body will lose heat 50% faster when clothes are wet.
Emergency preparedness in winter activities is often overlooked because we think
of the fun aspects of the activities. Nothing can ruin a grand adventure more
than being unprepared. Take a first Aid Kit and even a survival kit for the
unexpected. Running out of gas on your snow machine, or on your way back from a
weekend skiing trip can be devastating.