Take the bite out of winter and protect your skin

Winter is upon us. If frigid temperatures and dangerous wind chills repeat themselves this season, it’s important to have a refresher in taking care of yourself and avoiding frostbite.

Our skin is the first barrier to defense against our surroundings. Our skin is designed to adapt to many things,suchashealingafterit is cut. However, it is difficult for the skin to protect against extreme cold. When the air at the surface of the skin falls below freezing, the skin and body tissue just below the surface becomes frozen.

Skin is 64 percent water. The freezing at the surface causes blood flow to decrease, which is the main cause of damage from frostbite.

Symptoms of frostbite include skin that becomes firm, pale (white or blue), cold and may feel numb or tingly. In severe cases, the tissue will blister and turn black.
Early treatment is essential foravoidingturningintoa severe case. Rewarming is key.Getoutofthecoldandremove wet gloves or socks.

Options for rewarming include placing your hands in your armpits, dry and cover the area with warm clothes and then layers of blankets or immerse the area in warm water.
Thewarmwatermethodis the most successful. It is key not to use “hot” water; the rewarming water should be between 102 and 108 F or 38.8 to 42.2 C. Be patient as rewarming may take up to an hour.

Be aware that it may be painful during the rewarming process and it is OK to use over-the-counter medication, like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, to help with the pain.

If able, drink hot fluids such as coffee or tea, but avoid alcohol or smoking during the rewarming process. Avoid rubbing the area or putting direct heat, such as a heating pad or using a hair dryer, on the area. Avoid reexposure to the cold right after rewarming.

If the skin does not return to normal color after rewarming, you should seek medical attention. Be aware thatnumbnesscanpersistfor weeks after an initial event and the area affected will be more sensitive to cold in the future.

If the area turns a dark color, or black, it is important that it is evaluated, this could be gangrene and there are treatment options available to help avoid loss of the tissue.
Thebestadvicetofollowis to avoid frostbite by dressing properly and being prepared for cold temperatures and low wind chills when outdoors in the winter. Protect the head, ears, nose, hands and feet as they are the most sensitive.

The type of material used in your clothing can make a differenceaswell.Itisimportant to choose material that wicks away moisture from your skin. Polypropylene, polyesters and wool do a great job at this. Look for products with Gore-Tex as they are known for their ability to “breathe” but have a waterproof property.

Stay warm and safe this winter season Sheboygan County and avoid winter’s bite.

Dr. Donna Habeck is medical director of On-Site Medical Services for Prevea Health and a member of the HSC2020 Steering Committee.