As one of the coldest major metropolitan areas in the continental United States, and with an average annual snowfall of 45 inches, Minneapolis/St. Paul dishes out a winter season that can test even the hardiest of residents. Just last winter Regions Hospital in St. Paul treated a record number of patients for hypothermia and frostbite, according to Dr. George Edmonson, a radiologist at the hospital. “In most years we have a handful that are that severe – three, four, five – and this year we’ve already had a dozen. . .” he said, in an article posted on last January. The bottom line on Minnesota’s chill factor: if you live in a frigid environment, staying warm isn’t just a recommendation, it’s essential to your livelihood.

What is frostbite, and why is it dangerous? Frostbite is a medical condition that can result in permanent damage to skin and body tissue due to freezing. Most commonly, it affects the body’s extremities such as the fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin. In severe cases frostbite can result in gangrene and amputation, making this a serious danger to avoid at all cost. Those most susceptible to frostbite include:

Outdoor workers.
Homeless people.
Individuals with a weakened immune system (such as the elderly and children).
Individuals with physical or mental disabilities.
Those who smoke, have diabetes, or poor blood circulation.
Anyone who is not adequately dressed for the cold.
People with impaired judgment due to alcohol or drugs.
How do tell if you are experiencing frostbite: Because of its numbing nature, frostbite can be difficult to detect – another reason it is so dangerous. The Mayo Clinic offers the following list of signs and symptoms indicating frostbite.

At first, cold skin and a prickling feeling.
Red, white, bluish-white or grayish-yellow skin.
Hard or waxy-looking skin.
Clumsiness due to joint and muscle stiffness.
Blistering after re-warming, in severe cases.
Tips to avoid frostbite:

Avoid going out in extremely cold temperatures (below 32°F, or when the wind chill is -50°F or lower) unless absolutely necessary.
Limit the length of time you are outside and keep moving.
Dress warmly and in layers (the outer layer should be water repellant). Be sure to wear waterproof footwear and two pairs of socks. Cover all areas of your body. Mittens are preferable to gloves for keeping hands warm. Make sure to keep your neck, ears, cheeks and chin covered too.
Stay dry and keep out of wind when possible.
Avoid caffeine and smoking (both constrict circulation).
Never consume alcohol outside or before planning to spend time outdoors. (The unfortunate story of a young Minnesota college student who had all of her fingertips, her thumbs, and much of her toes amputated after spending a night on a neighbor’s porch in sub-zero temperatures last winter is proof that the dangers of alcohol and cold weather can be grave.)
Drink plenty of water to help avoid hypothermia and make sure your body has plenty of fuel (a full stomach) to supply your body with energy during your time outdoors.
Take a friend. If you are planning on being outdoors for awhile it’s a great idea to use the buddy system. As mentioned above, frostbite can be hard to spot. With a friend there you can keep an eye on each other.
Don’t think twice about asking for help. This goes for if you feel you may be getting frostbite as well as in situations such as accidentally locking yourself out of your car or house.
Look out for others who may be unaware of the dangers of frostbite.
According to the Mayo Clinic you should seek medical attention if you are experiencing any of the following:

Symptoms such as white or pale skin, numbness, or blisters.
Increased pain, swelling, redness or discharge in the area that was frostbitten.
New, unexplained symptoms
Armed with an understanding of frostbite and the proper strategies to protect yourself, you can ensure your winter will be spent safely admiring the beauty our winter weather can offer – without falling victim to it.