Number of frost bite cases on the rise: How to spot it, treat it and avoid it

It’s on the rise – not the frigid temps, but the number of cases of frostbite. And that means more patients are trickling in to local emergency rooms. It’s not just the arctic air that’s the concern – it’s the long string of cold days we’re weathering. That’s when the damage is done, and doctors say it’s critical to protect your skin.

It doesn’t look good … we’re at day 5 with several more rough ones to come.

Dr Michael Ernst, emergency medicine, Univ of Chicago Medicine: “When the temps are this cold, especially when it’s around zero to five degrees, just being outside for 10 to 15 minutes can result in frostnip and eventually result in frostbite.”

University of Chicago Medicine doctors are seeing about a case a day. Right now there are two patients at the hospital, both in the burn unit – that’s the typical course of treatment for the condition that starts with a numbing or burning sensation.

Dr Ernst: “People who are starting to develop frostbite, when you look at your hands you can see some white spots or redness, especially at the ends of your hands, tip of your nose, your ears, especially, and as that progresses it can start to swell and be extremely painful.”

That’s why covering up is critical -- your face, ears, hands are the most vulnerable. But if you feel and see the signs – act quickly.

Dr Ernst: “If you are exposed and you think you have it, put your hand or your face in lukewarm water, don’t put it into burning hot water because you won’t know how warm that is, and you can prevent a secondary injury from putting too hot of water on your hands or face.”

If symptoms don’t subside, seek medical help.

Dr Ernst: “Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t know the first signs and symptoms, and so when you develop that severe pain and the redness and swelling in your hands, that’s a sign that you’ve suffered severe frostbite and you need to go to the hospital.”

A tip from Dr Ernst – mittens are better than gloves when it comes to covering your hands. And we checked with several local ER’s – the big concerns are the homeless population and those who wait too long to seek medical attention.