HELENA — Frostbite is a danger that every Montanan faces during winter, especially with cold temperatures and wind. Fortunately, frostbite does not happen all at once. It happens in stages, and knowing the warning signs could prevent more serious damage.
Frostbite occurs when skin is exposed to extremely cold weather or surfaces for too long. When this happens, the top layer of skin and the tissues beneath it freeze and become damaged.
In cold temperatures and at higher altitudes, your blood vessels constrict, becoming narrower to divert the flow of blood away from extremities such as fingers and toes. This process helps to maintain core body temperature at the expense of extremities, which is where frostbite is more common.
Frostnip is the first stage of frostbite. It's mild and does not damage your skin, but it will turn red and feel cold to the touch. Numbness or a prickling sensation may happen. At this stage, covering up the skin or heading indoors should alleviate symptoms.
Superficial frostbite is the second stage. The skin may appear red or swollen and could feel hard or frozen. Damage to the skin is beginning to occur and prompt medical treatment is required to prevent further damage. Upon warming, blisters may form. Recovery is likely but permanent problems can include pain or numbness in the frostbitten area.
Deep frostbite is the third stage where several layers of skin are affected. The skin may have a blue or splotchy look. Muscles may not work properly. Immediate medical attention and warming of the skin is necessary. Following rewarming, the area will appear black and hard due to tissue death.
Frostbite is largely preventable by covering exposed skin or remaining inside in harsh winter conditions.