So you’ve been out in the cold, and now your fingers or toes are all weird and sore. Is it frostbite? Are you doomed to suffer the fate of so many unfortunate Victorian polar explorers, your extremities lost in the bitter wind and snow? Or did you just sit too close to the radiator and freeze up?
It’s easy to see where the confusion between frostbite (also called pernio) and frostbite comes from: after all, they’re both brought on by exposure to cold. But in fact, the two conditions have quite a few differences – from how and why they set in, to how they’re treated, and even how they might affect you years later.
What causes frostbite and frostbite?
Frostbite and chilblains are the result of being out in the cold too long. But there’s actually a big difference in exactly why each condition occurs – or so we think.
Frostbite, for example, sets in when exposure to cold temperatures causes blood vessels to constrict, which reduces blood flow to the extremities of the body. That’s good news for your vital organs – frostbite is, after all, your body trying to keep you alive – but it means less important areas like your hands, feet, ears, nose and lips will be deprived of oxygen.
Stay too cold for too long, and this lack of blood circulation also means that the tissues in these areas can literally freeze. You know how humans are 60% water? Well, when it gets too cold, water turns to ice – and at temperatures below about -23°C (-9°F) is exactly what is starting to happen to the cells inside your body too.
“Chilblains start out as mild symptoms, but quickly become a serious health risk the longer your skin freezes from exposure,” explains the Cleveland Clinic. “There are three stages of frostbite…in the second stage, your skin may feel warm, but the water in your skin slowly freezes into ice crystals.”
Frostbite, on the other hand – well, no one knows exactly what causes it. Sometimes they’re not even caused by the cold: the disease has been linked to other diseases like lupus, erythromelalgia and lately – but certainly not without question – COVID-19.
The main theory, however, is that it’s not really a reaction to cold, but to warming: “Warming cold skin can cause small blood vessels under the skin to expand faster than large ones. nearby blood vessels cannot sustain,” suggests the Mayo Clinic. “This leads to a bottleneck effect and blood leakage into nearby tissues.”
What are the symptoms of frostbite versus frostbite?
So how do you tell the difference between the two conditions? Well, the first question you might want to ask yourself is: how long has it been since you’ve been out in the cold? If you’re still in sub-zero temperatures, that’s a pretty big clue that you’re dealing with frostbite rather than frostbite – the latter condition usually doesn’t show up until a few hours after you step out of the cold.
But what else separates the two conditions? There are the physical sensations: one of the first symptoms of frostbite is numbness from pins and needles in the affected area, and the skin will feel very cold. This mild form of frostbite – or at least, as mild as it gets – is called frostbite, and it’s not as rare as you might think. It’s more of a skin irritation than a deep tissue injury, and as long as it’s treated before it gets worse, you may never even need to see a doctor. doctor about it.
If the cold exposure continues, however, and the frostbite gets worse, the increased tissue damage will begin to cause first your skin and then underlying tissues, including even muscles and tendons, to shrink. feel hard and frozen. Your skin may, paradoxically, start to warm up – this is not a good sign: it means that you are starting to see very serious skin damage.
Frostbite, on the other hand, is marked by itching, or possibly as a burning sensation. Rather than being hard to the touch, frostbite can cause your extremities to swell and cause blisters or even ulcerations on the skin.
With advanced frostbite it is easier to see the differences with frostbite. Rather than turning red or even dark blue as with frostbite, advanced frostbite can turn your tissues white or gray as the cold progresses further through your body. Beyond that, you can expect your extremities to turn black as the tissue dies, and eventually they may even self-amputate – that’s a medical euphemism for “falling off”, by the way. passing.
In its milder phases, however, it’s easy to see why the two conditions can get confused. In fact, milder frostbite can actually lead to frostbite as it heals.
Fortunately, at this early stage, the treatment for both is basically the same – but if deeper frostbite sets in, this situation changes drastically.
How do you treat chilblains and chilblains?
The biggest difference between the two conditions really comes down to their treatment. The good news: frostbite, at least, tends to go away on its own within a few weeks.
“Chilblains usually go away in one to three weeks, especially if the weather warms up,” explains the Mayo Clinic. “You can have seasonal recurrences for years… [but] frostbite usually does not lead to permanent injury.
In fact, the best “treatment” for frostbite is simply… not getting it in the first place. “The best approach to frostbite is to avoid developing it,” advises the Mayo Clinic, “by limiting your exposure to cold, dressing warmly, and covering exposed skin.”
Frostbite, on the other hand, requires fairly specialized care. Even just assessing the severity of the condition may require X-rays or MRIs – and if it’s progressed to an advanced stage you can forget about treating it at home with just a warm blanket and soap. ‘hope.
“Mild frostbite…can be treated at home with first aid care,” advises the Mayo Clinic. “For all other frostbite, after appropriate first aid and an evaluation for hypothermia, medical treatment may involve warming, medication, wound care, surgery and various therapies, depending on the severity of the injury. “
These treatments can be as simple as a hot bath and painkillers, or as invasive as amputation of dead or dying tissue. Sometimes specialized equipment like hot tubs or hyperbaric oxygen chambers can be used, along with aggressive drug treatments to prevent blood clots.
The worst part? Frostbite can continue to affect you even years later. “People with a history of severe frostbite often report other long-term effects,” notes the UK’s NHS article on the condition. “These can include: increased sensitivity to cold; numbness in the affected body parts, most often the fingers; reduced sense of touch in affected body parts; [and] persistent pain in the affected body parts.
Although chilblains and chilblains have some similarities, they are actually very different conditions, especially when it comes to treatment and long-term effects. Our advice? Try to avoid both: wrap yourself warmly in several layers; stay dry, even from your own sweat; and avoid alcohol and drugs that can alter your body’s natural responses to cold.
And remember: you’re not the only one who can get frostbite. Pets and young children are particularly prone to illness, but usually they either can’t tell us or they don’t realize what’s going on until the illness sets in. So, in addition to taking care of yourself this winter, keep an eye out for your loved ones as well. Nobody wants a toe amputated for Christmas.