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Health Centre deals with frostbite damage during cold snap


P>Extremities, exposed skin at risk again in future once frostbite sets in

Hand and toe warmers may have been flying off the shelves during the recent cold snap but for some people it was too little, too late.

Frostbite was nipping at the tips of toes and fingers and ears, keeping Whistler’s nurses and doctors busy during the unseasonably cold temperatures in Whistler recently. Temperatures on the mountains remained between —20 and —30 for several days in a row this past week.

Registered nurse Shirley Balzarini has treated cases of frostbite, particularly in mountain staff and backcountry skiers, over the past week at the Whistler Health Care Centre.

"Most of the people that do come in (to the clinic) have damage I’m afraid," she said.

"Their toes will be black and blue or their fingers will have blisters or their cheeks can have blisters. (It’s) not always a deep, deep frostbite but usually by the time it’s black and blue there’s damage there."

One backcountry skier who had been very diligent with his hygiene while in the backcountry, changing his socks and drying his feet every night, had severe frostbite on his toes despite doing all the right things.

"This person won’t be putting boots on for several weeks," she said.

"They are in agony."

She has also seen mountain staff with frostbitten toes, particularly if their boots are too tight. This cuts off the circulation and just adds to the chances of getting frostbite. She said when it gets this cold it’s time to leave the racing boots behind and rent a pair that will keep the blood flowing.

The first onslaught of frostbite is called frostnip, identified by white, numb patches on exposed skin.

"That’s something that people always should be watching each other for," she said.

The blanched skin is white because there is no blood supply getting to the area. People with frostnip need to get indoors and get the affected area warmed without rubbing it. Balzarini suggests cupping your hands over the affected area.

"Once it’s pink you can go back outside because there’s no damage," she said.

If the skin does not return to its original colour it should be assessed by a doctor.

If it is ignored it can progress to superficial frostbite. Large clear blisters will appear within a day or two. Then the skin will turn black. This can cause permanent damage and it can also progress to deep frostbite.

And it’s not just skiers. Without proper winter wear, people can get frostbite. Balzarini has seen it on the toes of people wearing skater shoes rather than winter boots.