Frostbite is a condition where the top layer of skin and the tissue directly beneath it freezes due to long-term exposure to extreme cold. The body’s extremities, which include the ears, nose, fingers, toes, arms, and legs, are most at risk for developing frostbite. When tissue freezes, the body loses heat rapidly. This results in the formation of ice crystals between cells, leading to cell dehydration. Eventually, the cells collapse and the frostbite sufferer experiences permanent tissue damage. Depending on the extent of the damage, frostbite can lead to a host of serious complications, including amputation of limbs, gangrene, loss of motor function, and even death.
Frostbite Among Korean War Veterans
In 1950, up to six million American soldiers suffered severe frostbite while fighting in Korea. They were exposed to harsh Siberian winds and extremely cold temperatures without the proper gear to insulate themselves, largely due to the expectation that the war would reach a swift resolution and the soldiers would return home before the winter hit. Decades later, these veterans talk of still having sensitivity to cold, sleep problems, general weakness, chronic pain, arthritis, skin swelling, ongoing infections, and numerous other complications. Permanent scarring and skin cancer where the frostbite occurred are among the most troubling issues, according to the veterans.
Caring for and Treating Frostbite Scars
When first-degree frostbite is promptly treated, it typically doesn’t result in permanent scarring. This isn’t the case with more severe cases of frostbite, even when initial treatment appears successful. Anyone who has scars from severe frostbite should consult with his or her doctor for further treatment. The doctor should evaluate the scars and determine if any of them are at risk for turning into cancerous tumors. If so, they need to be promptly removed to avoid further complications. As with other types of non-melanoma skin cancer, tumors caused by frostbite are highly treatable when detected and treated early.
Frostbite scars must be treated differently than burns, cuts, or scars caused by other types of injuries. This is because frostbite also damages underlying skin tissue. People with frostbite should consult a dermatologist to determine the severity of the injury and develop a treatment plan to eliminate scarring. Some possibilities include laser treatments, chemical peels, or a prescription bleaching product.
Both men and women can wear concealing makeup to hide frostbite scars on parts of the body not covered by clothing. Eating a lot of green vegetables, especially those containing Vitamin C, can help to reduce scarring as well. If the scar has recently formed, applying topical cream can help prevent it from getting worse. Once the frostbite has healed, applying moisturizer and massaging the affected area also helps to promote long-term healing.