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Doctors warn frostbite could come in matter of minutes during extreme cold

Numb fingers or toes could spell danger of permanent damage
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Posted at 12:49 PM, Dec 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-23 17:10:37-05

MILWAUKEE, Wis. — With temperatures hitting dangerous lows, the potential for frostbite is more prevalent than ever.

“Things happen very quickly whether it's frostbite or hypothermia, you have to be extra careful and you need to plan ahead,” said Dr. Jeff Pothof, Emergency Medicine, UW Health.

Emergency medicine doctors, like Dr. Jeff Pothof, say the threat of freezing skin and limbs can happen in a matter of minutes.

“Most of the time we're not thinking about what's going to happen if our car breaks down, someone's going to help us out. On days like this, that car breaking down can be a life-threatening emergency if you haven't prepared and found a way to keep yourself somehow warm, so you don't succumb to hypothermia or get frostbite,” said Dr. Pothof.

Dr. Pothof says frostbite isn't like a light switch, meaning it doesn’t turn on and off but rather, there’s a progression of symptoms.

He says the first warning sign that you're getting into trouble is when your fingers or ears start to go numb, which they call “frost nip.”

Children, in particular, can go through it even faster.

While it’s not particularly dangerous, Dr. Pothof says warming up sooner rather than later is key, as long as it’s done in the right way.

“We want that warming to be somewhat gradual. You don't want to use really high heat sources. Warm water is totally okay. Getting into a warm environment; using warm blankets or electric blankets would be fine, but you do want to avoid those really hot heat sources, or you may injure yourself with a thermal injury on top of the frostbite,” said Dr. Pothof.

Once your limbs start getting paler and changing color, that’s when the danger gets even greater.

Dr. Pothof says your best defense against frostbite is a good offense, so making sure everyone keeps their fingers, toes, ears and chin covered in the cold can keep you and others safe.

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