Older Adults at Risk to Frostbite

By February 1, 2016Aging in Place

The elderly are more susceptible to frostbite than people of any other age, except young children. Elderly with chronic diseases are even more apt to suffer frostbite. Frostbite can occur when the temperature drops below ten degrees. Additionally, it has a range of signs and symptoms. Here’s information you, as a caregiver, should know to help prevent seniors from experiencing frostbite.

Physically, the elderly don’t have the reserves that younger people have to fight frostbite. They have less subcutaneous tissue- the tissue beneath the skin that is used for fat storage – the fat that helps to keep the body warm. That layer of protective fat needs to be replaced with layers of clothing. Layers help to protect from wind and chilling temperatures.
Elderly with chronic illnesses are more susceptible to frostbite.

Be particularly vigilant watching the elderly who have:

  • Diabetes, peripheral vascular disease, hypothyroidism, Raynaud’s phenomenon, dehydration, and problems with circulation or blood flow.
  • Chronic respiratory diseases, e.g., COPD or asthma
  • A previous cold-related injury, including frostbite
  • Certain medications, especially those that narrow blood vessels, e.g., beta blockers and some types of sleeping pills
  • Frequently smoke or drink alcohol
  • Frostbite has a range of signs and symptoms.

  • A slightly painful, prickly or itching sensation
  • Red, white, pale or grayish-yellow skin
  • Hard or waxy-looking skin
  • A cold or burning feeling
  • Numbness
  • Clumsiness due to joint and muscle stiffness
  • Blistering
  • What does frostbite feel like?
    First the skin begins to feel like pins and needles. The skin may be pale or numb. If the person gets out of the cold at that point the skin will thaw but it will probably turn red and blister. If frostbite goes to a deeper level, the skin will become white, blue or blotchy and the tissue underneath will be hard and cold and have no feeling.
    Any degree of frostbite should be checked by a physician. However, if extreme stages of frostbite are experienced, a visit to the emergency room is in order.

    How do you treat frostbite?
    Get to a warmer place and remove wet clothing. Wrap the frostbitten area in blankets to warm and protect them. It is important to separate affected fingers and toes with any type of clean, soft material. Then soak the affected area in warm water for 20 to 40 minutes. Then wrap the affected area in gauze, separating fingers and toes.

    It is important to note that frostbitten areas should not be warmed by direct heat such as fire, heating pad or hair dryer. They should not be warmed more than once and frostbitten areas should not be rubbed or massaged.

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