Sounds counterintuitive but here's why it's possible to get frostbite symptoms in conditions that don’t seem too bad.
Firstly what is frostbite and what’s frostnip?
Frostbite is severe damage to tissue due to the formation of ice crystals within cells, rupturing the cells and leading to cell death. Frostbite symptoms and signs include tingling, numbness, and changes in the colour and texture of the skin. Frostnip is the first stage of the process and if arrested in time can be less serious.
There are three stages of frostbite;
- Frostnip: first degree injury, and often commonly referred to in Australia as straight out frostbite.
- Second stage: Some blisters may form
- Third: Very serious stage, features significant colour change and is very severe and can lead to long term damage.
What to do?
Room temperature water can be used to rewarm extremities for minor cases. If you are able to move the affected area, like your fingers or toes, you can do so to help rewarm the extremities. If necessary aloe vera gel or ibuprofen can be used to help reduce inflammation and discomfort (2).
For more serious cases medical attention and a slower reheating is advised. And most importantly do not thaw the affected area if there is the risk of refreezing (3).
More information and pictures at the Mayo Clinic site.
So Can I Get Frostbite on a Warm Day in the Snow?
Frostbite can start to occur in temperatures below just -0.5 degrees celsius. A typical day in the Australian alpine in winter typically sees temperature ranges from -8 to +3.
As everyone’s probably aware, you are at risk of developing frostnip if you aren’t wearing warm enough clothes. That's pretty simple and when the temperature drops past -10c people are generally pretty smart at wearing plenty of layers and minimizing exposure to the cold.
However, even if your clothes don’t adequately protect against wind or water you can be lured into a sense of false security. The sun is out and the temperature might be above zero. And when it gets warm, snow starts to melt, which can mean gear can start to get pretty wet. And one your gear and skin are wet you are at risk of frostbite.
When feet are wet they lose heat 25 times faster (1) than when they’re dry and this idea is generally true for hands and even your bum too.
So people get wet and as the temperature starts to drop quickly in the afternoon and the sun disappears, feet and hands start to lose heat quickly. Furthermore, if there is an increase in wind, the effect of wind chill can significantly increase heat loss when wet (3). And remember it only takes a temperature of -0.5c to be a risk.
This is why it’s important to change your socks regularly on a hike as sweaty feet or “trench feet” can cause feet to freeze. Similarly with outdoor gear in the alpine, quality items with a high level of water resistance saturation (such as the Cactus jackets listed here) go a long way in making sure your experience is a safe and enjoyable one.
In addition to quality gear, knowing the weather forecast, staying hydrated (not being intoxicated), maintaining nutrition and being aware of the signs of frostbite also help reduce risk.
To read more on the topic of frostbite, have a look at our sources:
- Roche-Nagle G, Murphy D, Collins A, Sheehan S. Frostbite: management options. Eur J Emerg Med. 2008 Jun;15(3):173-5. [PubMed]