When temperatures drop as winter settles in, parents around the world urge their children with stern warnings to bundle up like a mummy to ward off the effects of the cold.

What’s the worst that can happen if they don’t listen? They get a little cold, right? Wrong! If they get frostbite, they’ll wish they had listened and dressed appropriately.

Frostbite has been around forever. A 5,000-year-old Chilean mummy offers the oldest evidence of frostbite.

Baron Dominique Larrey, a surgeon in Napoleon’s army, first described frostbite medically in 1812, during the French army’s retreat from Moscow.

Frostbite (or congelatio in medical terminology) occurs when skin and other tissues freeze due to extreme cold. Frostbite usually happens in parts of the body farthest from the heart, such as the nose, cheeks, ears, fingers and toes.

At or below 32° F, blood vessels close to the skin begin to constrict, pushing blood away from the extremities and closer to the heart. This is one of your body’s survival techniques, as it helps to maintain core body temperature.

In situations of extreme cold or prolonged exposure, blood flow to the extremities can be reduced to dangerously low levels, leading to the freezing and death of skin tissue in affected areas. There are different degrees of frostbite.

The most minor, sometimes called “frostnip,” affects only the surface of the skin and usually does not result in permanent damage. More serious degrees of frostbite result from prolonged exposure to extremely cold temperatures.

The longer the body is exposed, the greater chance there is of permanent damage to skin, muscles, blood vessels and nerves. Extreme cases of frostbite can result in severe permanent skin and nerve damage and even loss of extremities.

When you are outside in cold weather for long periods of time, be on the lookout for itching and pain, as well as white, red or yellow patches on the skin. These, along with numbness, are signs of frostnip and, potentially, frostbite.

There are many factors that contribute to frostbite, including extreme cold, wet or otherwise inadequate clothing, high winds and poor circulation. Poor circulation can result from clothing or boots that are too tight, fatigue, alcohol and tobacco use, or disease, such as diabetes.

To treat frostbite, you need to thaw the affected areas. This must be done slowly and very carefully, though. A stable, warm environment is needed, as thawing and subsequent refreezing can cause even more damage.

It’s also very important to avoid rubbing or massaging affected areas. Rubbing frostbitten tissues can cause ice crystals that have formed in the tissue to do further damage.

If you suspect someone has frostbite, it’s best to move him or her to a warmer area and wrap him or her in a blanket, while seeking professional medical help.

 

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    • Hi, Eric! Thanks so much for stopping by Wonderopolis today and exploring this Wonder of the Day®! We’re glad you learned how to protect yourself from frostbite! It’s great to have fun outside in the winter months, but we want all of our Wonder Friends to stay safe and healthy! :-)

    • Yes! You’re the first Wonder Friend to comment on this Wonder of the Day® about frostbite, Eric! Thank you for letting us know you stopped by Wonderopolis today! :-)

  1. Hey wonderoplis great wonder. Thank you for the great tips on how to prevent frostbite. I think many people should look at your site a lot more it could prevent them from danger and the wonders you guys post are fantastic. Now I try to get on this amazing website every day!!! KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!!!!!

    • Thanks so much for leaving us such a GREAT comment, U-15! We really appreciate all the awesome things you said about Wonderopolis…we’re happy you like to visit every day! :-)

    • Hey Sophia! Thanks for sharing what you learned from our Wonder that was all wrapped up! We hope you’re having a WONDERful day! :)

  2. Wow WONDEROPOLIS, this is quite interesting! I hope to find some wonders that are even more interesting. Thanks for the tips also.

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Have you ever wondered…

  • What is frostbite?
  • How do doctors treat frostbite?
  • What are some ways to prevent frostbite?

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Try It Out

Have you ever heard the phrase “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”? It’s true! The best way to deal with frostbite is to avoid getting it in the first place.

Discuss steps you can take to avoid frostbite with your family… and don’t give anyone a hard time the next time someone asks you to bundle up before you head out into the cold.

Here are some things you can do to prevent frostbite:

  • Dress appropriately for the weather.
  • Wear multiple layers of clothing in very cold weather.
  • Put on mittens instead of gloves.
  • Wear two pairs of socks.
  • Wear boots or shoes that are waterproof.
  • Keep your head, face, nose and ears covered at all times.
  • Don’t wear tight clothes.
  • Always play or travel with a friend, in case help is needed.
  • Avoid prolonged exposure in wet or windy weather.

 

Still Wondering

Learn how to identify the seasonal patterns in temperature and precipitation with Science NetLinks’ Weather 2: What’s the Season? lesson.

 

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