January 15, 2021

Frostbite a constant danger during Wisconsin's winter months

Madison, Wis. — As many turn to outdoor winter activities during the pandemic, the public should be cognizant of the risk of frostbite.

Technically a burn, frostbite generally occurs when bare or under-protected skin is exposed to very cold temperatures (well below 32 degrees Fahrenheit). Depending on the temperature and skin exposure, frostbite can set in more quickly than most expect, within minutes when the air temperature or windchill get below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

There are some simple tips that can help prevent frostbite, according to Alexandra Lacey, assistant professor of surgery at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, and UW Health burn and wound surgeon.

"Often it's little things we just don't think about, like making sure we have extra warm clothes in the car even for short drives," she said. "We just need to be cognizant of the weather and prepare for cold temperatures."

There are a few things to keep in mind regarding this very serious condition. When heading outside, always check the weather forecast, take the wind chill into account and dress accordingly. Here are a few specific recommendations:

  • Keep your clothing dry (especially gloves and socks)

  • Consider waterproof boots and gloves when outside for long periods of time

  • Wear layers of clothing

  • Add a windproof layer on days that wind chill is a factor

  • Avoid alcohol when doing outdoor activities as this can alter your perception of the temperature and cause dehydration

  • Always have extra warm clothes and blankets in the car

  • If planning for outdoor activities, make sure to let people know where you are going and when to expect you to come home

  • Always watch your friends get into their home when you drop them off at night; don't assume they made it inside safely

Signs of mild frostbite include hands or feet turning pink or red after rewarming with normal sensation restored. If hands or feet appear purplish and are numb despite warming up, this is a sign of severe frostbite that requires immediate medical attention.

If large clear or bloody blisters form on your hands or feet after warming up, this is a sign of frostbite injury that requires emergency medical attention. Do not try to rewarm at home.

Following tips to protect yourself from frostbite is important. But we should also think of others in the winter to help prevent frostbite, Lacey said.

"We need to take care of each other in the winter, and we all have to the power to protect our friends, families and neighbors," she said. "When we see someone we know is at risk, say something or lend them an extra piece of clothing to cover up."