Preventive Maintenance: Beware of Frostbite!

by Karen Bowen

Another Canadian winter is upon us; another season of frozen roads and frozen toes. Time to start carrying extra gear to make sure you keep warm in the coldest weather conditions. Protect yourself.

Wear suitable clothing and protect susceptible areas from the cold. Proper clothing for winter weather insulates from the cold, lets perspiration evaporate and provides protection against wind, rain and snow. Several layers of light, loose clothing will trap air yet allow ventilation. This is better protection than one bulky or heavy covering. Choose clothing made of wool, polyester substitutes and water-repellent materials (not water proof, which holds in perspiration).

Wear mittens (not gloves because they separate the warmth of your fingers); two pairs of socks (cotton next to skin, then wool); and a scarf and hat that cover your ears. (You can lose a lot of body heat through the scalp.) Keep extras of each of these items in your cab in case they get wet while you’re outside unloading, or fueling up.

Make sure a mild case of frostnip doesn’t turn into frostbite.

Frostnip is the initial stage of frostbite and usually affects the unprotected tips of your cheeks, ears, nose, fingers and toes. If you’ve been out in the cold and your skin is red and feels numb and tingly, you’ve got frostnip. To treat it, just get out of the cold and warm your skin gently until feeling returns.

Frostbite is more serious. Your skin actually freezes, causing ice crystals to form in your deeper tissues. Frostbite is caused by exposure to freezing temperatures over a long period of time. The same areas prone to frostnip get frostbite. Many factors affect how bad a case of frostbite becomes: the temperature; the length of time in the cold; the wind-chill factor; wet clothes; cramped positions; tight clothing and boots and the type of protective clothing you’re wearing. If you’ve hurt yourself recently and lost some blood, you are more likely to get frostbite. As well, if you smoke, take beta-blockers (which decrease the flow of blood to the skin), or have diabetes or trouble with circulation, you should be more careful in the cold.

How do you know if you’ve got frostbite? First you’ll feel a “pins and needles” sensation, then numbness. At the beginning, you may feel some throbbing or aching, but later on the affected part feels insensate – like a block of wood.

Frostbitten skin is hard, pale and cold, with no feeling. However, when skin has thawed out, it becomes red and painful (early frostbite).

With more severe frostbite, the skin may appear white and numb (tissue has started to freeze).

If only your skin and underlying tissues are damaged, you’ll probably completely recover. But if you’ve frozen your blood vessels, the damage is permanent.

Very severe frostbite can cause blisters, gangrene (blackened, dead tissue), and may even damage tendons, muscles, nerves, and bone.

If you’ve been stuck outside in the cold for a long time, and wonder if you’ve got frostbite, what should you do? Find a warmer place. Then take off any tight jewelry or clothing. Look for signs of hypothermia and take a look at your fingers and toes for the signs of frostbite.

If you do have frostbite, what should you do? Go to a hospital for treatment. If you can’t get medical help immediately, thaw your frozen skin yourself.

In a warm area, warm up the frostbitten areas by soaking them in warm water (not hot).

If you keep the warm water moving over your skin, your body will warm faster. Or instead, you could put warmed (again, not hot) cloths on your affected ears, nose or cheeks for 20 to 30 minute intervals.

Be warned, as your skin warms, you will have severe burning pain and swelling.

As well, your skin will likely change in colour. When your skin becomes soft and you can feel again, you have completely warmed up your skin.

Now it’s time to bandage up the frostbitten areas with a dry, sterile dressing. (Again, be sure to keep your fingers and toes separated.)

Keep the thawed areas as still and warm as possible to prevent further damage.

As well, drink warm drinks to replace lost fluids.

What shouldn’t you do for frostbite? Don’t thaw out a frostbitten area if you can’t keep it thawed. (Refreezing makes the tissue damage even worse.) Don’t use direct heat (radiator, campfire, heating pad, or hair dryer) to thaw out frostbite. (Direct heat can burn the tissues that are already damaged.)

Don’t rub or massage the affected area. Don’t break the blisters. Don’t smoke or drink alcohol while recovering. (Both activities slow down your circulation.) Trucking during our Canadian winter is cold, but you won’t freeze your nose off if you stay on your toes! n

– Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant and she can be reached by e-mail at

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