ST. PAUL, Minn. - The risk of frostbite and hypothermia is high this weekend as temperatures dip below zero across much of the state.
Hospital emergency rooms were preparing for an increase in frostbite cases. In extremely cold weather, exposed skin can freeze in minutes.
Most people can detect the painful sensations associated with frostbite, said Dr. Aaron Burnett, an emergency physician at HealthPartners. But he said every year he treats some patients who do not recognize what is happening to them.
"The most tragic cases are young, otherwise healthy individuals who are out drinking," he said, "or otherwise have medical problems, such as diabetics who get low blood sugar and then go out and aren't able to recognize that they're getting cold. Their body is not able to sense the discomfort."
Pain in an extremity is the first warning sign that frostbite may be occurring. The parts of the body that are most affected by frostbite include the ears, nose, fingers and toes.
"Once you start to move past the stage of just pure uncomfortableness, you start to lose some of your fine motor control," Burnett said. "So especially in your hands, patients will have difficulty gripping a cup or writing with a pen. That's kind of the second stage. The third and most worrisome stage is when patients start to lose complete sensation and they don't even feel pain anymore."
People who suspect they have frostbite should immediately try to stop their skin from cooling any further, Burnett said, adding that applying warm water to the damaged skin is an effective technique.
"What I always recommend is getting tap water that's warm but not hot," he said, "testing the temperature of the water with a part of your body that is not affected, so perhaps your elbow, putting that in the water and making sure it's not scalding. And then placing your hands in the water and beginning to re-warm them."
Burnett said it's best to try to warm frozen skin before going to the hospital. He said recovery from frostbite is uncomfortable and many patients require pain medication.
While frostbite can be serious, Burnett said hypothermia is an even more dangerous condition. Patients with hypothermia become so cold that their body core begins to cool. He said patients with severe hypothermia can die of organ failure.
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