Feb 23, 2015 — It’s below freezing, the wind is blowing and you’re putting gas in your car. What if you have a 10-minute walk to work or the bus stop? Are you in danger of getting frostbite? If you are how serious will it be? Exactly how long and how cold does it need to be before frostbite is a real issue? Burn surgeon Dr. Amalia Cochran answers these questions, and tells you what symptoms should really start to get concerned.

Interview

Interviewer: Can I get frostbite just filling my car with gas or walking from my car to work? We'll find out next on The Scope.

Announcer: Medical news and research from University Utah physicians and specialists you can use for a happier and healthier life. You're listening to The Scope. Dr. Amalia Cochran is a burn surgeon here at the University of Utah and strangely enough frostbite handled by the same people that handle burns, which kind of surprised me. Yesterday we had just some nasty cold weather and even more than the 10 degree temperatures it was the 20, 30 mile an hour winds. I'm filling my car with gas, was I in danger of getting frostbite on my face at that point, I didn't have my hat on, so my ears weren't covered.

Dr. Cochran: What I tend to tell people is that anytime that you are out in temperatures that are under 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and that's air temperature not just wind chill temperature, but if wind chill drops below 10 the same rules apply. You do need to be thoughtful about your level of exposure and how long you are outdoors.

Interviewer: All right so those are two parts of the equation it's the temperature and then the level of exposure. So I'm out for two or three minutes putting gas in my car without a hat on, my ears are probably going to be fine?

Dr. Cochran: They are probably going to be fine, they are probably going to be really uncomfortable when you get back in the car and turn the heater on.

Interviewer: They were.

Dr. Cochran: But you should not sustain a frostbite injury in that frame of timeframe.

Interviewer: Here at the U, I have to park about 10, 15 minutes away and there again, that wind was blowing. I had my hat on but my face was exposed and it was red and burning. Was I in danger in that 10 to 15 minute period?

Dr. Cochran: The tip of your nose was probably getting close. You know we tell people that when you start thinking about frostbite injuries it's going to be fingertips, toes, nose, your earlobes. Things that don't necessarily have as good of blood flow because when you start getting cold your body starts drives all of your blood flow to the central part of the body. And so if you are out there for 10 or 15 minutes at one of the points in time when it was minus 20, minus 25 with the wind chill, you were getting right up against the limits of what we think is probably safe exposure.

Interviewer: All right so if your walking the dog, like I know you do and I do, a half hour you really want to be sure those toes and the nose are covered up and the ears as well.

Dr. Cochran: Absolutely yesterday morning when my Siberian husky, who was very happy with the conditions...

Interviewer: I'll bet he was, sure.

Dr. Cochran: ...took me out for my morning walk, I had on a balaclava to help protect my face and nose, I had on a hat, I had the hood up on my insulated long coat. I had long underwear and I had winter running socks with my insulated boots.

Interviewer: So on my walk if my nose was getting close to being frostbitten, what would that have ultimately meant then if it had been frostbitten.

Dr. Cochran: The good news is with an exposure like that you're not going to get one of the more devastating forms of frostbite that you start thinking about where things turn black and fall off and we have to do surgery. You would probably be looking more at either a low level of frostbite, kind of a first degree injury where it turns kind of pale and then it rewarms and it's sore for a day or two, or maybe even a mild second degree injury where it might blister up and peel. The good news is like I said those are things that kind of heal up.

Interviewer: All right. Any final thoughts on urban frostbite I guess we call this?

Dr. Cochran: No, this is a tough time of year and we're getting into tough conditions, and just remind people if you have to be out in this, please make sure you do cold checks of your fingers and your toes and your nose. I know a lot of people go up skiing this time of year and I always tell people if its under zero, you should probably be going and having a hot cocoa break between each run to check your fingers and toes and make sure your staying safe.

Interviewer: What am I checking for?

Dr. Cochran: Your looking for paleness or for loss of sensation, the other thing you will see is the tissue will actually get kind of hard feeling almost like its frozen because that's really what does happen is the tissue freezes. So if you have a lot of changes in terms of the sensation you suddenly notice, "Oh my fingers and my toes are numb." that means that you really should look to get in doors if possible.

Announcer: TheScopeRadio.com is University of Utah Health Science's Radio. If you like what you heard, be sure to get our latest content by following us on Facebook. Just click on the Facebook icon at TheScopeRadio.com.