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Ask the pharmacist: Watch out for frostbite

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With low temperatures just getting lower, it’s important to be aware of the risks of cold weather. The average adult body is composed of 65% water, with skin and underlying tissues susceptible to the beginning stages of frostbite when cooled below 10°C. Prolonged exposure to wet and windy conditions expedites the onset of symptoms. As does clothing choice, alcohol intake, medical conditions and therapeutic or recreational drug consumption.

The cheeks, nose, ears, hands and feet are ordinarily the first areas affected and should be monitored closely. Initial signs and symptoms of frostbite include numbness, tingling and changes in skin colour. If you notice these symptoms go inside, remove all wet or tight clothing and thaw the area with warm—not hot—water. If warm water isn’t an option, pat the area dry and warm with blankets. If you’re unable to get indoors, cover the area with your hand or some dry clothing. Do not rub the area.

The skin has been sufficiently warmed once it is back to its normal colour and no longer feels cool to the touch. At this stage the affected area will completely recover and there is no need
to seek further medical attention. If frostbite progresses beyond the initial stages, the skin will start to feel hard, appear waxy or bluish white, extremities may be immobilized and medical attention must be sought.

In most cases frostbite can be prevented with a little preparation. Ensure that vulnerable areas are covered with wool, silk, fleece or other moisture-wicking fabrics to help keep the area dry. Moisturize exposed areas, choose mittens over gloves and change socks regularly.

Heather Langille (B.Sc. Pharm, CGP) is a practicing pharmacist in Toronto, Ontario with a pharmacy degree from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.


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