Frostbite: protect your feet this winter

It’s time to strap on your snowshoes, step into your skis, or slip onto your snowboard as Ontario’s ski resorts are about to open for the 2021/22 winter season. As temperatures start to fall, the popular Blue Mountain resort opens on December 4th, with their webcam showing showing a good covering on snow at the top of Silver Bullet. (At time of writing – check the latest views here.)

It’s important to remember just how cold it can get in our Ontario mountains, even if the weather is relatively mild at lower levels. Sudden drops in temperature and increasing windchill increase the risk of cold-related injuries, including frostnip and frostbite.

What’s the difference between frostnip and frostbite?

Frostnip is an early stage of frostbite, and is reversible. Frostbite is more serious and can result in serious damage to vulnerable areas of your body. Frostbite is when your skin freezes and ice crystals form underneath it, and can affect areas of your body including:

  • toes
  • ears
  • hands
  • face

Once temperatures drop below freezing (32 degrees F / 0 degrees C) there is a risk of frostbite. This increases significantly below 0 degrees F / -17 degrees C. Add in a windchill factor of -19 degrees F, and your flesh will freeze in less than 30 minutes.

So you can see why it’s important to ensure you stay warm (and dry) when enjoying winter sports, especially if over a sustained time such as cross-country or marathon skiing, or sled racing.

Three levels of frostbite

As previously stated, frostnip is the early stage of frostbite. Symptoms include tingling in affecting areas, with the skin becoming cold, numb and white in colour. Frostnip usually affects extremities – toes, fingers, ears and nose.

Intermediate stage frostbite comes from prolonged exposure to cold which causes tissue damage. The area affected will feel frozen and hard. When the skin warms again, it will usually turn red and blister. Although technically known as superficial frostbite as it only affects the top layer of skin and tissue, you should seek medical attention to avoid lasting damage.

Advanced frostbite is when the skin turns white, blue or blotchy and is cold and hard to the touch. Severe frostbite (or deep frostbite) can penetrate into the muscles, nerves tendons and bones beneath the skin. When the skin thaws out, blood-filled blisters form which turn black over time, and some tissue may die. Dead tissue may have to be removed duet the risk of infection. Severe frostbite can have long-term effects such as increased sensitivity to cold, numbness, loss of sense of such and persistent pain.

Five top tips for avoiding frostbite

We can’t stress this enough – it’s all about wearing the right gear, from top to toe. Keep warm and keep covered as much as possible to keep your feet, hands and skin safe and maintain your core body heat.

1. Buy the right footwear

Invest in good quality ski boots or snow boots and ensure they are a good fit. Keep them clean and well maintained so they are waterproof, flexible (if required) and free from dirt, mind, salt and other potentially corrosive elements.

2. Spend money on your socks

Socks may not be the most glamorous winter sports clothing item, but they are crucial to maintaining foot health. Wear clean, dry thermal socks that wick moisture away from the skin. If your feet get wet, change your socks for a clean, dry pair as soon as possible. Wet cold toes are far more at risk from frostbite than warm, dry ones.

3. Take off any toe rings

Any metal jewellery will freeze faster than your skin, and will therefore cool down surrounding skin faster. The same applies to earrings, nose studs, body piercings, etc.

4. Cover up exposed skin

Exposed skin is most at risk, so wear insulated gloves, cover your face and wear goggles to protect your eyes. If you notice any patches of whiteness on exposed skin, seek shelter immediately and get medical help. Don’t venture out if you’ve had frostbite already, as this can damage affected parts further. (And don’t remove your boots to change socks when outside!)

5. Plan your day

Check the snow conditions, the temperatures in specific parts of the resort or location, and keep an eye on wind speeds. Getting wet feet in the slush at the foot of a mountain then taking the lift to the freezing top is not a good plan!

And a bonus:

6. Ask for some hand or foot warmers from Christmas

They really can make a difference! Lots of choice, both high tech and low tech.

First aid for frostbite

If you suspect you are developing the early stages frostbite, move to a warm location as soon as possible. Note that walking on frostbite feet and toes can cause further damage, so don’t think “I’ll deal with that when I get home”.

  • Remove wet clothing and replace with warm and dry items.
  • Wrap yourself in a blanket.
  • Protect the frostbite areas but don not rub or expose to direct heat (such as an open fire). This can cause further damage.
  • Seek urgent medical assistance for severe frostbite.

Rewarming after frostnip and frostbite

Frostnip rewarming can be done by soaking the affected area in warm water. Rewarming areas affected by frostbite should be done with the help of a medic to avoid further damage. Rewarming should take place gradually over a 30 minute period, and may include submersing the affected toes in warm water, at no more than 39 Degree c / 102.2F). Once warm, your feet should be kept clean and dry, and usually wrapped in a bandage to separate the affected toes.

Help from our footcare experts

If you’ve damage or injury to any part of your feet, call us. We offer expert advice, treatments and recovery/rehabilitation plans to help you get back on your feet at our local foot clinics in Ontario.

• Stratford foot clinic
Ingersoll footcare clinic
London footcare clinic

Published On: December 1, 2021