11/26/2014 10:49 EST | Updated 11/26/2014 10:59 EST

Frostbite Treatment: How To Deal With The Painful Winter Ailment

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Now that temperatures have dipped below zero in many parts of Canada, we probably don't need any more reminders to bundle up.

A lot of tasks, however, are tricky to carry out while wearing thick gloves, and it can be tempting to shed them while shovelling, moving furniture or walking the dog in the bitter cold. And on top of that, frostbite, which happens when skin and underlying tissues freeze, is a real danger.

Frostbites can lead to long-term numbness, nerve and cartilage damage and even gangrene if not treated properly, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Other causes of frostbite, besides leaving the skin exposed to the cold, include wearing tight clothing, touching ice packs, frozen metal or cold packs. Windchill can also aggravate it.

The method of treatment depends on the severity. Most of us have probably experienced frostnip, the mildest kind, in which the skin tingles and feels red and cold. Frostnip usually goes away as soon as you warm up without any lasting damage, notes Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe in the Globe and Mail.

The next level, where ice crystals actually form in the skin, is harder to treat. Get out of the cold, if possible, and avoid walking on any frostbitten toes, Wijayasinghe says.

Re-warming the area should be done under medical supervision, because the process can be painful and painkillers are often needed. It involves immersing the frostbitten body part in warm water for at least 30 minutes, twice a day until the skin regains its colour and you can move the part easily. The skin should then be gently wrapped in clean bandages, with fingers and toes separated.

The U.K. National Health Service says that it's important not to re-warm the area if there's a chance of it freezing again.

Frostbite can have some devastating effects, so try and avoid it in the first place. Science Daily suggests wearing several loose-fitting layers before going out in the cold, incudling a waterproof layer on top. Double up on socks, wear mittens instead of gloves, and check for gaps in your outfit where cold air could hit your skin.


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