Medicines for strokes or clogged arteries in the heart are now being used to treat frostbite.
Clot-busting medications can dissolve clots and restart blood flow in frostbite victims, just as they do for strokes in the brain, Dr. William Mohr, medical director of the burn center at St. Paul's Regions Hospital, said Tuesday on MPR News' Morning Edition.
With frostbite, when there is no blood flow to an area, ice crystals form in the tissue. Then, when the body is re-warmed, the inside lining of the arteries "slough off, travel downstream, and then plug up the arteries to the hands, feet, toes, fingers," Mohr said.
The blood vessels in those vulnerable areas "get clogged up from the debris of damaged cells from freezing," he added.
It can take less than 10 minutes for frostbite to set in on exposed skin when wind chills fall to 30 below zero or lower, as they have in Minnesota since the polar vortex arrived late Sunday night and early Monday, bringing dense, frigid air.
Hennepin County Medical Center and Regions Hospital have seen as many as 14 cases since Monday.
"This is the most patients we've had in any one 24-hour period, and probably the most sustained stretch of severe frostbite injuries that we've had," Mohr said.
Frostbite can occur without warning from the body, he added.
"At these temperatures, it can really sneak up on you," he said. "We've had people with just a hole in their glove, or wet protective clothing that have felt cold, and then it felt better, mostly because it went numb. But that's not a good sign in this kind of temperature."
Those who are homeless are most vulnerable to frostbite, Mohr said.
"But also, there's people who didn't quite plan ahead," he said. "Those dressed appropriately for indoors, but when their car stalls or runs out of gas, or runs into the ditch, their tennis shoes just aren't going to protect them as they try and walk for help."