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Frostbite and the Elderly: What You Need to Know

Frostbite and the Elderly: What You Need to Know

Bitterly cold — that’s what the weather report says — danger of frostbite. Make sure you remember that frostbite can be especially dangerous to the elderly.

Did you know that if you have frostbite, your skin freezes and ice crystals form inside your cells?

Did you know that no matter what you might have seen in old movies, rubbing or massaging frostbitten skin only makes things worse?

Signs and symptoms of frostbite (Courtesy Mayo Clinic)

  • A slightly painful, prickly or itching sensation
  • Red, white, pale or grayish-yellow skin
  • Hard or waxy-looking skin
  • A cold or burning feeling
  • Numbness
  • Clumsiness due to joint and muscle stiffness
  • Blistering, in severe cases

Many of us who live in New England have probably experienced superficial frostbite or frostnip, as it’s sometimes called. Your skin feels like pins and needles and may be pale and numb. Ignore it and stay out a little longer and your skin will feel hard and frozen. If you get out of the cold at this point, when your skin thaws it will probably turn red and blister, but hopefully, you won’t have any lasting damage.

If frostbite goes deeper, your skin will become white, blue or blotchy and the tissue underneath will be hard and cold and have no feeling and if deeper tissue is frozen and blood vessels are affected, you may also have damage in your tendons, muscles, nerves and bones. In the worst-case scenario, tissue dies (gangrene) and amputation may be necessary to prevention infection.

All degrees of frostbite should be evaluated by a medical professional,
but it’s vital to get emergency care when frostbite is deep.

Frostbite typically affects the smaller, more exposed areas of the body — your fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin. Because your skin is likely to be numb, you may not realize you have frostbite until someone else points it out.

Who is most at risk?

Anybody who goes outside in frigid weather is at risk of developing frostbite. Children are increased risk. Frostbite in the elderly can be dangerous, especially to those with chronic illnesses.  There are a number of other things that can also make someone more vulnerable.

  • Certain medical conditions or diseases, e.g., diabetes, peripheral vascular disease, hypothyroidism, Raynaud’s phenomenon, dehydration, and problems with circulation or blood flow.
  • Chronic respiratory diseases, e.g., COPD or asthma
  • A previous cold-related injury, including frostbite
  • Certain medications, especially those that narrow blood vessels, e.g., beta blockers and some types of sleeping pills
  • Alcohol
  • Smoking (nicotine can narrow blood vessels)

How to treat frostbite

  • Get to a warmer place
  • Replace wet clothing with soft dry clothing
  • Wrap in blankets to warm and protect frostbitten areas (separate affected fingers and toes with any kind of clean material)
  • Soak the affected area in warm, not hot, water for about 20 to 40 minutes
  • Wrap in gauze after re-warming, separating affected fingers and toes
  • Be sure NOT to use direct heat such as fire, heating pad or hair dryer to thaw – it can burn already damaged tissue
  • Do NOT re-warm frostbitten tissue if it can’t be kept thawed – re-freezing can worsen tissue damage
  • Do NOT rub or massage frostbitten skin – it can cause further damage

If it’s cold enough to cause frostbite, it’s also cold enough to cause hypothermia. Hypothermia happens when your body temperature drops and your heart, nervous system and other organs can’t work as they should. You can read more about hypothermia in our blog post What You Need to Know About Hypothermia and the Elderly.

Another cold weather risk is carbon monoxide poisoning. Be sure to visit our post: Carbon Monoxide: Cold Weather Safety Tips.

Pay special attention to the elderly

No matter what the weather is, we need to watch over and take care of those who aren’t able to do it themselves. This includes our children, our elderly and even our pets! If you need help caring for someone who is elderly — to make sure he or she is warm, well nourished, safe and nurtured — Advantage Home Care has many ways to be of service. Please take a moment to visit our website, call us at 207-699-2570 or send us an email.

If you have any more cold weather suggestions, send us a comment and we’ll pass them along.

Are you curious about other winter weather issues? Check out our blog post, “Frostbite and the Elderly: What you Need to Know.”

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