When tissues of the body freeze, the condition is known as frostbite. Exposure to temperatures below the freezing pointy of skin causes frostbite. The most commonly affected parts of the body are the nose, cheeks, ears, fingers and toes.
You body first tries to stay alive, than maintain function in all parts. After a long period of exposure to cold the blood vessels in your arms and legs constrict, slowing the flow of blood to the extremities, and supplying it to the vital organs to maintain the body’s core temperature. The process of limiting blood also includes brief pauses when the vessel are dilated to reinitiate the blood supply and maintain as much motion as possible in those parts of the body. However, when the brain senses the body could go into hypothermia, it permanently shuts down the blood supply to the affected areas to prevent cold blood reaching the vital organs. This is where frostbite begins.
Frostbite is generally cause by two means: cell death at the time of exposure and further cell damage and death due to lack of oxygen.
The first step is for ice crystals to form in the space outside of cells. The cell then loses water from inside and dehydration then leads to the destruction of the cell. Secondly, blood vessels are usually damaged by the cold temperatures, causing holes to appear in the vessel walls. When the blood passes through when re-warming, it leaks out into the tissues and causes clots impeding the flow of blood.
Frostbite is divided into two categories to better making it easier to understand and treat.
Superficial frostbite can cause burning, numbness, tingling, itching, or cold feelings in the affected area, making them appear white and frozen. The area retains some resistance when pressed on.
Deep frostbite can be recognized by an initial decrease in felling in the affected area, followed by a total loss of feeling. Swelling and blood-filled blisters are present in the area, while it the affected are is yellowish and has a waxy texture. As it re-warms it gains a purple shade. No resistance is present when pressed on, and it may ever appear dead and blackened. The healing process is painful as the affected areas begin to warm up, and it cans last for weeks in the most severe cases.
To treat frostbite, a doctor must be able to see the affected area. Therefore it is necessary to seek medical attention if you are experiencing more than a mild case of frostbite. There are some steps you can take before you arrive at a doctor following immediate frostbite:
- Keep the area elevated to reduce swelling
- Move to an warm area to prevent further heat loss
- People with frostbite might also be suffering from hypothermia and that should be taken care of first
- Removing any thing that may constrict the blood flow to the area such as jewelry or clothes
- Never re-warm an are if there is a chance it will get cold again, this damages the tissues further
- The most effective treatment method is to warn the area quickly, therefore wait until you arrive at a treatment facility where that can happen
- Getting the person as fast as you can to a hospital is vital
If the person is not suffering from life threatening hypothermia, the treatment process can begin once arrived at the hospital. A hot bath is the first treatment for frostbitten patients. Then post-thaw care is applied trying to preserve the damaged tissue as much as possible.
The treatment for frostbite is done over a long period of time, and can last for months.
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