Story last updated at 1/14/2009 - 11:03 am
KENAI - While forecasters are calling for an end to the extended cold snap that's gripped the central peninsula by the end of the weekend, it may be a bit early yet to pull out the short-sleeves, something that could still result in frozen extremities.
According to Bonnie Nichols, spokeswoman for Central Peninsula Hospital, only 1 patient had received treatment for frostbite by the afternoon of Jan. 6.
The number is probably misleading, though. Brad Nelson, assistant fire marshal for Central Emergency Services, said many victims never seek proper medical treatment.
"There's the tough, suck it up Alaska mentality," Nelson said.
He said many victims with frost nip and frostbite will go ahead and treat themselves, further damaging affected areas by improperly treating them with hot water or vigorous rubbing.
Frostbite, and its lesser stage of frost nip, if not treated properly, can result in long term damage.
"You're potentially making yourself more susceptible to frostbite later on down the road," Nelson said.
In this extreme cold weather it takes only a few short minutes of exposure before the early stages of frost nip set in.
Nelson said nip is recognized by a tingling or burning sensation in the affected extremity. Skin color will typically change to blue or purple.
"You start seeing definite color changes and you'll definitely be feeling it," he said.
Conditions go from bad to worse when actual frostbite sets in.
There are four degrees of frostbite.
In the first degree, skin turns pale white or yellow and the affected extremity goes numb.
Nelson said there's no way of mistaking a frostbitten appendage as having re-warmed itself.
"It's not that you're not feeling something, it's numb, so you know something is still wrong," he said.
In cases of second-, third- and fourth-degree frostbite, skin turns black and entire limbs may become frozen.
While the best option is to prevent the onset of frost nip to begin with, occasionally people are caught unprepared.
Nelson offered some advice on what to do, and not to do, should you feel yourself going through the early stages.
In the most ideal situation, he recommended getting to a source of external heat, whether it's a running car or a heated building, and allowing the extremities to re-warm naturally.
If that's not available however, he said pile on any extra layers and try to reuse body heat.
"Tuck you hands into a warm part of your body like your armpits or groin," he said.
If the extremities can't be re-warmed with more layers or body heat, preventing further freezing is the best bet.
"The goal at that point is to stabilize the situation. They can't solve anything on their own anymore and should just try to prevent anything from getting worse. They should seek medical attention as soon as possible," Nelson said.
Stopping to try and build a fire, for example, would be foolhardy.
Additionally, beating frozen extremities or rubbing them together vigorously can all do more harm than good.
"Do not warm it up if you can't keep it warm," he said.
Nelson explained that when frost nip and bite sets in, little jagged crystals, just like those of a snowflake, form within the cells of the body, wreaking havoc on the flesh.
"When you rub frostbit areas together, what's happening in the cells is you're scraping those crystals together," he said.
If you manage to restart circulation in a frozen extremity, but then lose it again, the damage done is even worse.
The effect is similar to what happens to the consistency of a piece of fish that's frozen, thawed, refrozen and finally thawed again before being consumed.
The meat loses its firmness and becomes mushy.
"Because they already did damage the first time they froze, now thawing while there's crystals around and refreezing the damaged tissues compounds the problem," he said.
Aside from destroying more tissue, the nerve endings in the extremity may no longer respond to pain, opening up the possibility to cause burns in attempting to re-warm the extremity in hot water or near fire.
Nelson recommended always going out prepared as the best away to avoid these issues.
Though a jacket and thin pair of gloves may be sufficient to keep someone warm on the short walk from a building to their car at 20 below, they'll want more if they get into an accident or break down.
For this reason it's a wise idea to keep a few extra layers in the car.
Backcountry travelers should take extra caution and be sure to carry enough layers.
Nelson advised dressing to the weather.
"Adjust layers to the conditions you're in," he said.
He recommended wearing breathable base and insulating layers made of synthetics, silk and wool.
Cotton is a poor choice for any wilderness use as it absorbs moisture and robs heat from the body.
Nelson also recommended that every first aid kit should be stocked with chemical hand warmers.
Dante Petri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.