At first, your fingers and hands just seemed a little cold. Nothing to worry about. However, when you got back to your winter cabin after a longer than expected cross country ski outing, you suddenly realize your fingers are a strange blue, waxy color and they’re numb. In fact, they are so numb you didn’t even realize you were suffering the initial stages of frostbite until you tried to warm them up with a cup of cocoa and sitting by a cozy fireplace. Frostbite affects hundreds, perhaps thousands of people every year around the world.
We know in the United States; more than 700 people die from hypothermia and frostbite every year. According to the CDC, elderly, people who spend a lot of time outside, babies sleeping in cold rooms and those who drink or use drugs are at the highest risk to suffering from frostbite. If you know how to keep your hands warm so you don’t get frostbite, you can avoid being a statistic. What’s scary about frostbite is that many people don’t know they’re fingers or hands are frozen until it’s too late. Let’s hope you never experience that!
What is Frostbite?
Before I get into how to keep your hands warms, I want to take a closer look at what causes frostbite and the signs and symptoms you should be looking for. Once you have a better understanding of this potentially deadly medical condition, you will have a good idea on how to prevent it. Ready. Set. Go! No tests, I promise! Although, Mother Nature may test you next time you’re out on your snowmobile!
Frostbite is an injury to your body tissues. When it’s cold outside, your body works hard to keep you core warm. Often, all your warm blood is focused on maintaining your vital organs. This mean, your fingers, feet, nose, ears, cheeks and other vulnerable areas don’t get all the warm blood they need! This is why keeping these sensitive areas covered and warm Is so important in preventing frostbite.
When your fingers and hands get too cold, your tissue starts to freeze and ice crystals form in your cells. When this happens, you are suffering from frostbite. There are varying levels of frostbite, mild levels typically just affect the surface of your skin. The severity of frostbite, depends on how deep the tissue damage. In severe cases, frostbite effects not only the skin cells, but the muscle and bone below.
In these cases, amputation is the only option. Frostbite is serious medical condition and almost always requires immediate medical attention. Frostbite usually occurs when your outside for a prolonged period of time in temperatures below freezing. Kids and babies are particularly vulnerable to frostbite because they don’t like to keep gloves on and it can be difficult for them to articulate if they’re cold, depending on the age.
Signs and Symptoms of Frostbite
Click this link to be taken to the Healthline.com article about Frostnip: www.healthline.com. Frostnip is typically the first sign of frostbite. Red cheeks, red hands or pale feet that feel very cold to the touch are usually tell-tale signs of frostnip. Frostnip is typically superficial and won’t cause any long term permanent damage. However, if you start to feel cold, it’s probably a good idea to get inside and warm up. If you can’t get warmed up, you will start to enter the beginning stages of frostbite.
Signs to look for: numbness, cold-prickling feeling, blue, gray or white-waxy looking skin, clumsiness and blistering after you warm up your hands. If you begin have any of these symptoms and develop a fever or incredible pain, it’s time to take a trip to the emergency room for treatment. If you try to warm up the affected area before you seek treatment be careful not submerge the area in hot water. If the affected area is numb, you can seriously burn yourself with hot water because you most likely can’t feel it!
It doesn’t take long for frostbite to set in. In fact, if you’re not wearing the proper clothing and under certain temperatures, frostbite can set in after 30 minutes of exposure. The National Weather Service has this really cool infographic that helps you determine how quickly frostbite and hypothermia will set in based on air temperature and wind. For example, if it’s 5 degrees outside with a wind speed of 25 miles per hour, frostbite can set in around 30 minutes. The colder the temperature and higher wind speed, the quicker your fingers could start to feel numb.
Frostbite typically occurs when your body is exposed to the weather, without any protection! Frostbite can also happen if you’re wearing the wrong kind of clothing! To prevent frostbite, you need to wear the appropriate layers to keep your hands warm and protected at all times when outside in the cold. There’s a saying among outdoor experts: stay dry, stay alive! So, what does this mean?
It means staying dry is your ticket to staying warm! It’s easier said than done, though. If you choose the wrong fabric, wrong layers and wrong gear your hands and the rest of your body could get really wet and cold in no time. To truly prevent frostbite, we need to focus on staying dry. Okay. Let’s look at the various steps you can take to ensure your hands stay dry! Please also see our articles entitled “How To Keep Your Hands Warm In The Winter” and “How To Keep Your Hands Warm In Winter While Resting“.
Let’s start with glove liners! Glove liners are a perfect way to add an extra layer of warmth to your hands. Glove liners are thin, lightweight and intended to be worn underneath an outer glove layer. Glove liners should fit snug, but not too snug- you don’t want to cut off the circulation in your fingers! Glove liners will keep a thin layer of warm air close to your hands and fingers!
When shopping for liners, look for gloves made with merino wool or a synthetic blend. Merino wool is an amazing fabric that naturally wicks away sweat and moisture! Wool is your ticker to keeping your hands from getting too wet. Wool glove liners, like these ones on Amazon, might be a really good option if you’re going to be active and you’re prone to sweating! Just a quick note about cotton: stay away from it! Cotton acts like a sponge when exposed to moisture (sweat) and it can actually draw body heat away from your core.
Stick with wool or nylon, polyester or lycra blends- they’ll be sure to keep you dry and warm all at the same time. You can find a glove liner to fit just about any budget. Pro tip: try on your glove liners with your main pair of gloves. You don’t want to lose any dexterity with both layers and you certainly don’t want the gloves to be too tight- your hands could get cold that way too! Try on a couple combinations of liners and gloves at the store before you buy! You don’t want to get 6 miles into a 30- mile snowmobile ride only to discover you can’t grip the handlebars.
If you’re hands are starting to feel a little chilly change out your gloves if you can for a pair of mittens. While gloves are a great choice for specific activities where dexterity is important, having your fingers separated could make your feel chilled. I always like to carry an extra pair of mittens with me when I’m on an outdoor adventure, where I know I’m going to be outside for long periods of time. With mittens, your fingers are all in the same area- generating more body heat.
You can also purchase glove liners to add another layer of warmth and protection from the bitter cold! When choosing gloves or mittens, make sure they are waterproof. Waterproof means they keep all moisture and wind away. Wind is a big culprit in stealing body heat, so it’s important to keep wind at bay! With that said, you could have the best, fanciest waterproof gloves/mittens on the market and you can still get moisture inside, if you don’t protect your wrist area.
Outdoor experts will tell you moisture typically enters the glove through the wrist- and that’s when your hands start to get cold. So, if your hands are feeling chilled protect your wrists. A jacket or long johns with thumb holes work wonders when it comes to protect your wrists. When you use the thumb hole on your long johns, the material extends to the base of your hand and it stays in place.
Combined with a glove liner and outer glove, that area has no chance of being exposed to the harsh, unforgiving winter weather! If you’re in a pinch and you don’t have thumb holes on your coat or shirt, use the cinches on your gloves and pull your coat over the top of your wrists. This will also help keep warm air in your glove and prevent the frigid cold from creeping in. My favorite extreme cold winter gloves are the Fortress Arctic Extreme Mittens. They are designed to keep your hands warm even if wet in sub-zero temperatures.
Hand warmers are perhaps the best way to warm up your hands so you don’t get frostbite. If you’re feeling a little chilled and your fingers are feeling frigid, hand warmers can give you the shot of heat you need! Hand warmers are small, non-toxic and easy to use. Open the package, shake a few times and bam, you have a nice heat pack that fits nicely in your gloves. In fact, some gloves are equipped with special zipper pouches designed specifically for hand warmers. I’ve tried the zipper pouches, but honestly, I prefer to have the hand warmers inside my gloves directly on my skin.
I find the zipper pouches, prevent some of that heat from reaching my hands. That’s just me. I guess it depends on your gloves and how cold your fingers are feeling. Hand warmers are inexpensive and easy to pack. There’s really no reason why you shouldn’t be carrying a couple packs of hand warmers at all times when outside during the winter months. The only downside to hand warmers is they don’t last as long as I’d like.
I can typically get a couple hours out of a set and then they lose their heat. If you want a heat source that will provided a consistent heat for a long period of time, opt for a rechargeable hand warmer. While more expensive, rechargeable hand warmers pack a punch of heat and they last! These hand warmers also have a couple different temperature setting! You can find both the disposable and rechargeable hand warmers on Amazon!
Generate Body Heat
If you’re outside and your fingers start to feel numb, you need to get the blood flowing to your fingers. Some outdoor experts recommend moving your arms in circles, shaking your hands and doing jumping jacks. We know it’s easier to stay warm, then it is to get warm. That’s why it’s important to wear the right gear. But, sometimes you can do all the right things, wear all the right gear and still be chilled. With that said, if you can get moving and generate some heat, your hands might have a chance to warm up- at least until you can get inside away from the cold temperatures. Another idea: sticks your hands under your armpits, where there’s a lot of heat.
While I would never recommend taking off your gloves when your hands are cold, in some scenarios that may be your only option. If your gloves are soaked, you’re going to be better off taking your gloves off and getting them covered…. even if that means under your arms for a while. Soaking wet gloves can actually make your body colder, so if that ever happens, take them off and put your hands next to your core, where there’s warm skin.
Another option: blow on your hands with warm air. The air from our body is typically around 98 to 99 degrees. That warm air will feel good for a few minutes, but it’s only a temporary solution-your hands are still exposed to the cold!
It’s worth repeating: it’s easier to stay warm than it is to get warm. Wearing the appropriate layers from head to toe, will keep you warm and prevent hypothermia and frostbite from setting in. However, sometimes even the most experienced and well prepared outdoor enthusiast can run into trouble. There are lots of ways to warm up cold hands, but your best bet at beating frostbite is to get inside away from the harsh weather. How do you keep your hands warm when you’re enjoying the great outdoors?