Quick treatment key to minimizing frostbite injury

Frostbite has already sent several patients to Hennepin County Medical Center this winter and sub-zero temperatures this week will likely bring more to the hospital.

During sub-zero weather exposed fingers, noses and ears can suffer frostbite within 10 minutes.

Dr. Ryan Fey, medical director of HCMC's Burn Center, urges anyone who suspects they have a frostbite injury to seek immediate medical care to minimize their chances of suffering permanent tissue damage.

"Even in the severe cases of frostbite there are things we can do to try to minimize the risk of amputation," Fey said. "And that's a very time-dependent treatment and it involves giving blood clot-busting medication, much like you hear about for strokes and heart attacks."

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Fey said most cases of frostbite occur when people unexpectedly get stuck outside while wearing indoor shoes and light clothing. HCMC also treats a large number of frostbite victims who were impaired by alcohol or other substances, according to Fey.

"We really try to get the message out in these circumstances to play it safe, dress appropriately, limit your time outside, limit the consumption of alcohol and other substances if you're going to be outside," Fey said.

Last year, HCMC treated a record number of frostbite cases. More than 200 patients were admitted for frostbite during the bitterly cold 2013-14 winter season. That compares to an average of 25 patients in a typical year.

According to the Mayo Clinic, frostbite starts with reddish skin that then turns pale and stings, burns or swells, eventually turning to numbness.