Colorado weather: Frostbite happens fast so bundle up

November 25th, 2019

A powerful pre-Thanksgiving storm is moving into Colorado and that means it’s time to bundle up and reduce the risk of frostbite.

Don’t forget your hat, gloves or boots, or think that pockets and tennis shoes will do the trick. Medical experts at the UCHealth Burn and Frostbite Center on the Anschutz Medical Campus say frostbite can happen in as little as 30 minutes to skin that is left exposed.

A kid sticks his tongue out to try and catch snowflakes. Colorado weather can cause frostbite.
Make sure to bundle up and avoid frostbite, which can occur within 30 minutes if skin is exposed to freezing temperatures. Photo: Getty Images.

Frostbite is damage to the skin and other tissues from exposure to freezing temperatures and happens when exposed areas of skin get very cold, causing ice crystals to form. This eventually leads to the blood vessels in that area freezing, causing the affected areas to go without blood, nutrients and oxygen.

The parts of the body most commonly affected by frostbite are areas exposed to the cold air, especially the fingers and hands, the feet and toes, the nose and ears. Signs and symptoms of frostbite include:

  • Shivering is the first sign the body is losing heat, so don’t ignore it.
  • Numbness.
  •  Pale color to the skin.
  •  Clumsy movements.
  •  Pain that persists for 45 minutes after rewarming.
  •  Following rewarming, increased redness or discoloration.

It can happen fast. It only takes 30 minutes for frostbite to set in when the temperature is 5 degrees and the wind speed is 30 mph. At -5 degrees and a wind speed of 30 mph, frostbite will happen in 10 minutes.

A chart about wind chill from the National Weather Service. Colorado weather can cause frostbite in matter of minutes for exposed skin.
Wind chill can dramatically increase the potential for frostbite. Courtesy: The National Weather Service.

How can I prevent frostbite?

There are a variety of ways:

  • Dress in layers and keep outerwear dry.
  •  Choose loosely woven fabric for the inside layer (wool, silk, polypropylene). These fabrics hold more heat and help avoid excessive perspiration.
  •  When outside in cold temperatures, take frequent breaks indoors and assess hands, feet, ears and nose.
  •  Cover your head – wear a hat and earmuffs.
  • Wear heavy mittens instead of gloves. The collective body heat from the fingers being together keeps the hand warm.
  • Two pairs of thinner socks provide better insulation than a single pair of thicker socks.
  •  Be prepared when traveling in cold weather. Keep a winter survival kit in the car that includes blankets, matches and extra clothes. Never rely on your car’s heater to be the only source to stay warm, since your car could run out of gas or be damaged in an accident.

What should you do if you suspect you have frostbite?

  •  Remove wet clothing and get into a warm environment.
  •  Avoid rubbing the area – rubbing frozen tissue can cause further damage.
  •  If you are concerned that you may have frozen digits/ extremities, avoid rewarming them until you are sure they will not refreeze.
  • Immediately seek medical attention. Getting proper treatment within 12-24 hours of rewarming of the injury, can save the frozen areas from possible amputation.

Frostbite can be serious. Possible long-term effects include: change in sensation of the injured area, including cold sensitivity, muscle weakness or joint stiffness; chronic pain, secondary to nerve damage; damage to sweat glands, cracking skin and nail loss; and possible need for amputation of the damaged digits or limb.

There are good treatments for frostbite if you seek help early. The UCHealth Burn and Frostbite Center is the Rocky Mountain Region’s only American Burn Association and American College of Surgeons verified burn center since 1998, and has been serving the region since 1978.

UCHealth Burn and Frostbite Center Anschutz Medical Campus is located at 12605 E. 16th Ave. Aurora, CO 80045 Or call 720.848.7583 or visit www.uchealth.org/burn for more information,

About the author

UCHealth is an innovative, nonprofit health system that delivers the highest quality medical care with an excellent patient experience. With 24,000 employees, UCHealth includes 12 acute-care full-service hospitals and hundreds of physicians across Colorado, southern Wyoming and western Nebraska. With University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus as its academic anchor and the only adult academic medical center in the region, UCHealth pushes the boundaries of medicine, providing advanced treatments and clinical trials and improving health through innovation.