People who spend long periods of time exposed to temperatures below freezing are in danger of developing frostnip and frostbite. Frostnip is a precursor to frostbite. Frostbite occurs when ice crystals form in the blood cells, eventually causing them to rupture and die. Differentiating between frostnip and frostbite is not difficult. However, it is necessary since frostbite is a severe condition requiring immediate attention and treatment.
Frostnip is considered more of a temporary discomfort than a severe condition. If ignored or left untreated, frostnip can eventually matriculate into frostbite. By itself, however, frostnip does little more than cause discoloration, swelling and numbness on the surface of skin tissue. Frostbite is much more serious and affects extremities on a subcutaneous level. If left untreated, frostbite can cause loss of fingers, toes or other extremities.
Color is perhaps the simplest method of differentiating between frostnip and frostbite. With frostnip, skin will normally turn white or slightly yellow. This usually occurs in random patches on the toes or fingers. As frostnip progresses, skin begins to swell and redden. The onset of frostbite is usually accompanied by a distinct blackening of the skin.
The symptoms of frostnip are usually mild. They include mild discoloration of the skin, numbness, itching, pain or swelling. In the worst cases, frostnip may lead to permanent sensitivity to cold or heat. Contrarily, frostbite is a severe condition with equally severe symptoms. The initial stages of frostbite can cause blood poisoning (known as septicemia), which can be fatal. As frostbite develops, it can cause permanent damage to skin tissue, eventually causing it to die.
Both frostnip and frostbite are caused by exposure to cold. With temperatures just below freezing, this can take several hours of prolonged exposure. With temperatures much lower, freezing can take only minutes. Other factors such as wind and water will also speed the freezing process. Wind will blow away the thin layer of warmth exuded by the skin and lower its temperature faster. Water, such as from wet clothing, draws heat away from the body as it evaporates or freezes.
Wear proper attire at all times, especially on your hands, feet and face. Opt for warm, loose-fitting clothing rather than skin-tight gear. This will allow a small pocket of space between the clothing and your skin that acts as a natural insulator. Avoid getting your clothes wet at all costs. Do not stay or sleep in areas directly exposed to cold or wind. Inspect your feet every night for wounds, cut or sores, and clean them with foot powder and bandages.
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