One area of survival medicine that often goes unnoticed is how to treat frostbite or trench foot. Both of these conditions can be serious or even life threatening and they are a common problem in survival scenarios, particularly out in the wild. Frostbite occurs in extreme cold temperatures when the body’s tissues actually freeze. It is most common on the extremities like the toes, fingers, nose, ears, or even lips.
Trench foot is another dangerous condition that occurs when the feet are immersed in cold water for a long period of time. This causes nerve damage and it is sometimes called “Immersion Foot”. When you take a look at history, you will find that trench foot was a common problem for soldiers in World War I. When they spent long periods of time in dug out trenches, it caused damage to their feet. In many ways, trench foot is similar to frostbite, but the feet will appear more swollen and fluid filled.
Prevention is Key
The best way to deal with frostbite and trench foot is to avoid them in the first place. Always be prepared if you are planning to be out in cold, wet conditions for a long period of time. Dress warmly and think about what supplies you would need in case you end up stranded. If you are hiking in the snow, these are conditions that are a real possibility so you need to be plan ahead.
Always cover your extremities. That means you need warm hats and mittens or gloves. Try to avoid overexertion. If you are sweating, your body will loose heat much more rapidly. So rest periodically and avoid sweating heavily in the cold weather. Wear loose-fitting clothes in many layers. Multiple layers of lightweight clothes are better than one or two layers or heavy apparel. The layer closest to your body should be made of wool to help you maintain body temperature.
It’s also vital that you keep your body and feet dry. If you are cold and wet, these are perfect conditions for frostbite and trench foot. Get out of wet clothes as quickly as possible.
Know the Warning Signs
Frostbite occurs in stages, so it’s important to know the warning signs and take action as soon as it starts to set in. One of the first symptoms of frostbite is a prickly pins and needles feeling. Next will come numbness. You might also notice the skin changing colors from pink to pale white and eventually blue. Your skin will start to feel hard and waxy. At the last stage, the skin will turn black, a dangerous sign that gangrene has set in. When gangrene occurs, you are experiencing tissue death. In most cases, gangrene means you will lose the body part and it also puts you at increased risk of a life-threatening infection.
How to Treat Frostbite or Trench Foot
It’s important to act quickly when you notice the signs of frostbite or trench foot. Obviously, seek medical attention right away. If you are stranded and unable to call for immediate help, there are a few steps you can take. Soak the effected area in warm water. It shouldn’t be too hot though! While hypothermia is usually treated with dry compresses, frostbite is treated with warm soaks. Move the victim to a warm place as quickly as possible. Use dry warm compresses to warm the body and warm water to heat up the frostbite or trench foot.
Make sure you don’t allow the area to refreeze. If the tissue repeatedly freezes and thaws, it will cause deeper damage. Also be sure you don’t rub the frostbitten area or it can cause additional injury. Do not use heat lamps or fires to treat frostbite. Because the area is numb, the victim cannot tell when the tissue is too hot and burns can easily occur and go unnoticed.
When frostbite or trench foot occurs, it can be terrifying. But act calmly and quickly and call for medical help and you could save a life!