Frostbite in Fairbanks: keeping you and your family safe this winter

We have some tips to help you and your family avoid getting too cold and putting yourself at risk for frostbite this winter.
Published: Nov. 16, 2022 at 4:57 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Although Fairbanks has only had a few days below zero this winter, colder temperatures loom ahead as the season pushes on.

Fairbanks is known for its extreme temperatures and sometimes unpredictable weather patterns. But normal winter lows dropping to -20° or colder doesn’t stop life for the people in the Interior of Alaska.

Making sure you and your children are properly outfitted for the sub-zero temperatures can help save fingers, toes, and other body parts from getting frostbite.

Carla Cartagena De Jesus is a pediatrician at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. She explained how frostbite affects the body. “Frostbite is an injury to the skin caused by the cold. Our skin has different layers to it, and the cold can affect the skin in those different layers.”

Cartagena De Jesus noted that frostbite can happen to anyone, but to her surprise she found frostbite primarily affects adults more than children.

“You don’t see frostbite as much in kids, but it does happen,” she said. “I actually asked a friend why that was and looked into it. Children’s vascularization is a little bit better in those extremities and kind of distal parts that are affected.”

Frostbite, a cold weather injury, is essentially the freezing of tissue and is most commonly found on the ears, nose, cheeks, and chin. It is also common to have frostbite on the fingers and toes.

According to Cartagena De Jesus, frostbite is a lot like ischemia - an inadequate blood supply to an organ or part of the body. Those with poor perfusion (passage of fluid throughout the tissue) or circulation can become more susceptible to frost nip or frostbite.

So what is the difference?

Simply put, frostnip is a mild form of frostbite. It can cause some numbness but doesn’t cause permanent damage to the skin.

“Sometimes little kids, when they are outside for a long time, they will get what is called popsicle panniculitis,” Cartagena De Jesus explained. “They’ll get this redness of their cheeks and it gets really hard, and that it also a cold injury kind of reminiscent of frostbite. We think it happens because they have chunky cheeks and the cold affects the fat cells a little bit more there.”

Frostbite, on the other hand, can be dangerous because it often numbs the skin at first, sometimes going undetected. Symptoms can include numbness, swelling, blisters, pale or waxy discoloration, and loss of coordination to name a few.

“We take a lot of care for the little kids... but the teenagers, kind of being in that rebellious stage, sometimes they do things on a dare or because their friends are doing it to be cool,” Cartagena De Jesus said. “So be hyper-vigilant that they are taking care of themselves and wearing the appropriate gear to be outside.”

Those who live in Fairbanks or the surrounding areas know that wearing the right gear in the wintertime can save you from cold weather injuries. It is a necessity. For those who are new or planning to visit the area, plan ahead to make sure the proper gear is readily available before you go outdoors.

Parents who are concerned their children may have frostbite should start by taking off any wet or cold clothing. Gently rewarm the affected areas in warm water only, as using hot water to re-warm can cause further damage.

Cartagena De Jesus also noted not to place affected areas near a fire because if the person has any numbness, they may not feel it if they are being burned.

“Come to the clinic if you feel like it is just a little bit red, we can help you through that,” she said. " If you feel like there is whitening, blistering or they are in a lot of pain, they should probably go to the Emergency Department just to be seen.”

Cartagena De Jesus concluded by pointing out that those with severe cold weather injuries are treated in the Emergency Department with standard wound care, which could involve topical antibiotics followed up by a visit with your primary care physician.