Jack Frost's Nip Can Be Serious

Being familiar with the causes and signs of frostbite can help ensure you don’t experience it.

Frostbite is a very real danger to the snow and ice manager. Working outside in winter’s extreme temperatures puts you at serious risk for this dangerous injury. Though few snow and ice managers are likely to experience the worst form of frostbite, the less serious stages are still extremely painful.

Frostbite can occur whenever the ambient temperature falls below 32°F. You’re more likely to encounter frostbite when windchill increases from factors such as a strong wind and when your skin is wet. This is because moisture is a good heat conductor, and you lose body heat more readily when your skin is wet.

You also increase your chances of contracting frostbite by coming into contact with cold objects, such as the handle on a snowblower or a snow shovel. This is especially true with good heat conductors such as metal. Like moisture, metal can conduct your body heat, and you get colder faster. And, if you work in higher altitudes, your body has a lower level of oxygenation, which also increases your chances of experiencing frostbite.

The first stage of frostbite is considered superficial—at least in comparison to the most serious stage. Usually, extremities or exposed skin are the first to be effected. This superficial stage begins as your skin and tissue immediately beneath freezes. Constricted blood vessels slow circulation to these areas and decrease tissue metabolism. These areas may appear waxy and feel numb or firm. For some individuals, they may not experience any pain with this stage. You can prevent true frostbite from setting in by simply rewarming the affected area. Hold it with your hands, between your legs or under your armpits to help regain circulation and warm the area. Because rapid warming can be harmful, make sure to rewarm the affected areas gradually. As with sunburn, the uppermost layer of skin often peels off.

In the second stage of frostbite, the skin is damaged and tissues die as a result of the freezing. At this stage, you’ll often see fluid seepage and blistering, similar to a serious sunburn. You’ll need immediate medical attention to treat and dress the affected area.

The third, most-serious stage of frostbite is commonly referred to as actual frostbite. The affected area appears white and waxy and hard to the touch. Blood clots block small blood vessels in the affected area, and the surrounding tissue dies. Permanent nerve damage occurs at this stage.

As mentioned, you must begin treatment as soon as possible to avoid more serious injury when you suspect that frostbite has occurred. Of course, first contact medical help. Then begin immediate treatment by warming up the affected body part. Take the person into a warm room and remove tight clothing. Bathe the affected area in warm—not hot—water. Next, place the person in a warm, dry bed and monitor them periodically. Do not rub or massage the frostbitten area, as this can aggravate the injury.

What’s frustrating about frostbite is that, once you experience it, the affected areas continue to be a problem whenever you are exposed to cold temperatures. The areas typically become red, swollen and itchy. The medical term for this condition is chillblain and, unfortunately, it has no treatment. Therefore, it’s especially important to protect these areas from exposure by dressing appropriately.

Watch out for co-workers, as well as yourself, when working in extreme weather. You can’t always feel frostbite occurring. Thus, you may need to rely on someone else noticing the top of a nose or ear turning white to know that you are in danger of frostbite.

Credit: University of Minnesota Extension Service.


Although cold temperatures are the primary cause of frostbite, other factors can contribute to chances you or one of your workers will experience it. These factors include:

  • Consumption of drugs or alcohol (lower body temperature)
  • Exposed skin or wet clothing
  • Fever or anoxia (below-normal oxygenation of arterial blood)
  • Previous injury (especially hemorrhaging)
  • Overexertion (which drains calories and heat)
  • Tight clothing (such as footwear or gloves, which diminish the flow of blood)
  • Blood-vessel diseases (diminish the flow of blood)
  • Fatigue and dehydration (diminish the body’s protection against cold)
  • Neuromuscular diseases (diminish ability to recognize extreme coldness)
  • Injuries resulting in sensory loss (same as above)
  • Psychosis (diminish ability to take protective measures against the cold).

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