Many parts of the Lower 48 have so far enjoyed a mild winter, but a punishing blast of Arctic air is sweeping into the Northeast that could set records.
The National Weather Service warns that such frigid air can lead to frostbite in less than 10 minutes if skin is exposed. Joan Dolinak, medical director at the SUNY Upstate Medical University’s burn center, said frostbite can occur in temperatures under 40 degrees.
As bitter air from the cold snap causes temperatures to plummet, the threat of frostbite will increase. Here’s what to know.
What causes frostbite?
Frostbite occurs when your skin and underlying tissues freeze while being exposed to low temperatures or through direct contact with cold objects. Frostbite is most commonly caused by exposure to cold air.
Exposed skin has a higher chance of getting frostbite than covered skin, but wet clothing can also lead to frostbite.
The young and the elderly are also more susceptible to frostbite due to thinner skin on their extremities, which means they can have difficulty retaining body heat. Consuming alcohol can exacerbate risk factors since it causes the body to lose heat faster, though the consumer won’t necessarily realize the cooling effect because of an artificial feeling of warmth, Dolinak said.
What are signs of frostbite?
- Skin will turn white, red, blue or gray
- A tingling or aching feeling
- Hardening of your skin
- Pale or waxy feel and color
- Blisters (yellow or blood-filled)
How quickly can you get frostbite?
Single-digit temperatures can cause frostbite in a matter of minutes. According to the Weather Service, frostbite can occur on exposed skin in less than 10 minutes if air temperatures dip to 5 degrees or wind chills of minus-19.
The risk of frost bite grows even with low wind speeds if air temperatures fall below minus-5 degrees Fahrenheit.
How do you heal frostbite?
Frostbite normally heals from the inside out, Dolinak said.
The best and fastest way to rewarm frostbitten skin is to submerge the extremity in warm water that’s around 98.6 to 102.2 degrees and circulate it, Dolinak said.
“If you’re looking at a scenario where you are unable to get to someplace warm, we do something called ‘passive rewarming’, which means you put on a glove, you try to keep it close to your body or warmer part of your body to allow it to rewarm,” Dolinak said.
For more severe cases of frostbite, it can be critical to seek medical attention.
Can frostbite kill?
Frostbite does not generally kill people, but hypothermia can. Frostbite targets and causes damage to specific extremities while hypothermia attacks the whole body.
“The only way that frostbite can potentially kill you is if it gets infected or it has been there for a prolonged period of time,” Dolinak said. If frostbite impacts the muscle, people could also die from the high levels of potassium used to rewarm.”
Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, resulting in dangerously low body temperatures. Severe hypothermia, which occurs when body temperatures dip below 95 degrees “can lead to cardiac arrhythmias and can kill,” Dolinak said.
What are the different types of frostbite?
Superficial frostbite causes skin to turn red. If you rewarm superficial frostbite, a yellow fluid-filled blister will form. This form of frostbite is less severe because it only affects the top layers of skin and tissue. It usually takes about two weeks to heal.
Deep frostbite causes the skin to turn white or a blueish-gray color. As you rewarm deep frostbite, the tissues turn black — a sign that the tissue may be dead. This is the most severe stage of frostbite because it affects your skin and the tissue below it. If this severity of frostbite sets in, it can lead to amputation.
Hospitals monitor people with deep frostbite for one to three months, according to Dolinak.
What body parts are most at risk?
Frostbite is most common on fingers and toes since they are the “most sensitive areas” for adults and children, Dolinak said. Occasionally, ears, noses, chins and cheeks are also affected.
A guide to surviving winter weather
Stay warm: If you’re going to be outside for extended periods on frigid days, it’s important to bundle up. Here are our tips for staying warm when it’s super cold — and some ideas for picking the best winter coat. Indoors, power outages can be a major issue this time of year too, so make sure you’re prepared for them.
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Prepare your home: If there’s a snow storm coming your way, here’s how to get your home ready for extreme cold. It’s also a good idea to make sure your phone and internet are ready for a disaster.