DIY Frostbite Treatment
An inebriated man – I won’t say who – was once deserted at a local pub on a frigid Minnesotan winter night. The evening’s swill was running circles around in his brain, making everything look runny. He hitched a ride
from a friendly pub patron to where he lived, walked up the front steps and then dropped like a sack of bolts unconscious to the porch floor. Several hours later, with ice crystals collecting in his hands, the tissue beginning to freeze, the skin hard and whitened as if
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the transformation from man to monster was setting in, he woke up.
Had it actually been his own home, he may have died on that miserably cold night. But it was the home of his neighbors, and when he pounded on the front door at 2:00AM they did what was reasonable and called the cops. An arrest was made, as was a quick release when they saw what they were dealing with. The kind folks in blue helped him get treatment for the frostbite in his hands before bringing him home. But what if he was in the backcountry? How would one deal with a condition that could result in the severing of limbs?
Frostbite, a cruel bastard of an injury, occurs when susceptible body parts are exposed to cold temperatures. Ice crystals collect in the exposed limbs, and
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when the tissues freeze it leads to cell death. Most commonly it is the distal extremities (fingers, toes, etc.) that are injured by frostbite.
As with anything, the best way to deal with frostbite is avoidance.
But life isn’t a fairy tale and sometimes we drink too much hooch and fall on the ground unconscious in the middle of winter. And then we’re stuck with frostbite and we have to just deal with it. At that point, anyone who says, “Well. Tch, Tch. You know. You really shoulda been wearing better gloves,” deserves whatever retaliation the injured deems necessary.
The good news is that frostbite is relatively easy to identify and, unless it’s extreme, deal with. The skin becomes numb, it gets hard, turns white and the affected area is cold to the touch. Blisters may also appear, but generally not for about four to six hours after the frostbite has set in. What you need to do is warm up the area gradually, but only if you can make sure that the area has no chance of refreezing again. The
more the tissue refreezes and thaws, the more damage occurs.
Warm up some water to between 98 and 105 degrees and plunge the frostbitten body part in. How you heat up the water doesn’t matter, but if it’s with a fire, keep the affected area far away from it. With the tissue being numb, you may not feel it burning if you use the fire as a heat source. Similarly, don’t rub or massage the affected area, as that will also damage the tissue. If heated water isn’t a possibility, you’re stuck with shoving the body part against warmer areas, like a comrade’s backcountry-soiled pits
or your own groin. Wrap up in dry clothing and crawl into your sleeping bag. Maintaining warmth throughout your body helps.
The most severe frostbite injuries, and the full extent to which may not be apparent for weeks, will turn black and could even “autoamputate” – that is, simply fall off. That being said, surgical amputation is generally put off for months because the affected tissue will often fall away only to reveal healthy tissue beneath. So don’t in a frostbitten frenzy panic, and in your delirium decide, ‘Well hey. Never really used that thumb anyways,’ and lop it off with your pocketknife. That pleasure is reserved for the Aron Ralston and medical experts of the world.