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Gazette Premium Content The Survival Doctor: You might be tough, but frostbite can still take its toll

By James Hubbard Special to The Gazette - Published: January 14, 2014

Rulon Gardner is one megatough dude. In case you don't know, he's an Olympic wrestling gold medalist. Oh, and he's a Coloradan. A giant of a guy, he was stranded for something like 17 hours on the side of a mountain after a snowmobile accident in 2002.

They found him almost dead from hypothermia. His right shoe was frozen to his foot. He lost the tips of both big toes, all of his right middle one and a lot of skin from severe frostbite. But it could have been so much worse. We can learn a great deal about frostbite from his experience.

Frostbite symptoms

Most people get the mild version of frostbite. Your fingers or toes - or whatever's frostbitten - become numb, and the skin turns reddish or white or reddish with white splotches. The flesh feels firm to the touch but not hard, not frozen deep.

With mild frostbite, if you just go inside and warm up, you may have pain and swelling but no skin loss. That's because the most superficial layer of skin is all that's frozen. Frostnip falls into this "mild frostbite" category. Treatment is to get the frostbitten area warm as soon a possible.

Like the mild version, severe frostbite most commonly affects the toes and feet. The nose, ears, hands and fingers run a close second. But with severe frostbite, the deeper tissues freeze. The skin is gray or white and hard.

Severe frostbite damages the fat layer, muscle, sometimes even bone. It can damage the growth plate in children, resulting in a bone deformity. Rewarming causes severe pain, swelling and large blisters. You need expert treatment.

Risk factors for severe frostbite

Obviously, the cold was the biggest risk factor for Gardner. The long time outside certainly played a role. But he had other risk factors as well. Here are a few we should all try to avoid so we won't lose a digit or two - or a life:

- Hunger. I doubt Gardner packed enough food for his 17-hour trip. Even a big guy gets energy depleted. Food provides fuel to generate energy through your body's metabolism. This energy is the primary source of your body's heat. Before you get out in the cold, eat a good breakfast. Don't forget to take a snack or two with you.

- Fatigue. From the ride, the accident and trying to make his way out, Gardner must have become very tired. Most people who get severe frostbite are. When you're fatigued, your body's metabolism can't function as efficiently, and you produce less heat. When you're in the cold and working or playing hard, remember to take breaks. Don't overdo it.

- Altitude. Gardner was trying to climb a mountain. Higher altitude is a risk for hypothermia. We're not sure why.

- Wind. As we all know, a cold wind seems to cut through your clothes. It can come up quickly, and if it hits your skin, it steals heat just as fast. In the very cold, be sure to cover all bare skin. Your outside layer should be as wind resistant as possible.

- Moisture. Gardner wrecked in a pond and his feet got wet. Moist skin conducts heat away from your body many times faster than dry skin. That includes sweat. This is one reason you should layer, with the outside layer being water- and wind-resistant.

Gardner is one tough guy. And I'll bet he's a lot smarter now than in 2002.

-

Hubbard is a family doctor who teaches how to survive during disasters or any time you can't get expert medical help at TheSurvivalDoctor.com.

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