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Fingerless gloves in winter raise risk of frostbite, amputations, Loyola surgeon says

Advice: Fat-finger a text rather than lose digit to frostbite

The popular half-gloves that leave fingers uncovered for texting may be good for communicating electronically, but they may also lead to permanent loss of fingers due to exposure to the cold. 

"Fingers are one of the first body parts to feel the effects of the cold and damp, and along with toes, ears and the nose are frequently subjected to frostbite and even amputation," says Arthur Sanford, MD, Division of Trauma, Surgical Critical Care and Burns, Loyola University Health System. "Better to fat-finger a text due to wearing winter gloves than to lose a finger due to the cold."

Frostbite is most likely to happen in body parts farthest from the heart and those with large exposed areas. "Blood vessels start to constrict at or below 32 degrees Celsius to preserve body temperature," Sanford says. "The lack of blood in areas of the body can lead to freezing and the death of skin tissue."

Sanford says he treats frostbite in people of all ages. "The elderly lady who goes out in the snow to get her mail, falls, breaks a hip and lays in the cold and wet for hours until being discovered is a typical victim of frostbite," he says. "But the younger person who goes on a drinking bender and walks home in the snow and damp is also a familiar sight at Loyola trauma."

When suffering from prolonged exposure to cold, use room temperature or slightly warm water to gently revitalize the body. "Do not use hot water, do not rub with handfuls of snow and do not vigorously massage the frozen area," Sanford warns. Overstimulation can worsen the situation.

Winter wellness tips from Sanford and Loyola include the following:

  • Dress in layers. "If a sweater, pair of socks or other article of clothing gets wet, you can quickly remove it and still be protected from the cold and wet," Sanford says.
  • Wear a hat, gloves or mittens and proper footwear including socks and boots. "Texting gloves may look cool and be handy for communicating, but it is better to wear full gloves or mittens and save your fingers," he says.
  • When outerwear becomes wet, go inside and change to dry clothing. "Wet socks especially are dangerous and can lead to a condition called trench foot, which results in poor blood circulation, decay of tissue, infections and even amputation," Sanford says.
  • If the affected area becomes numb, turns red or blue, swells or feels hot, go to the emergency department. "An emergency physician will assess the tissue and take the proper steps to save the body part," he says.

Hypothermia, when the body temperature is below 95 degrees F (35 degrees C), was the cause of death for 700 Americans between 1979 and 1998. "Bundling up for winter may take you out of media circulation temporarily, but better that than to permanently lose the ability to text due to frostbite," Sanford says.

Loyola University Health System (LUHS) is a member of Trinity Health. Based in the western suburbs of Chicago, LUHS is a quaternary care system with a 61-acre main medical center campus, the 36-acre Gottlieb Memorial Hospital campus and more than 30 primary and specialty care facilities in Cook, Will and DuPage counties. The medical center campus is conveniently located in Maywood, 13 miles west of the Chicago Loop and 8 miles east of Oak Brook, Ill. The heart of the medical center campus is a 559-licensed-bed hospital that houses a Level 1 Trauma Center, a Burn Center and the Ronald McDonald® Children's Hospital of Loyola University Medical Center. Also on campus are the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, Loyola Outpatient Center, Center for Heart & Vascular Medicine and Loyola Oral Health Center as well as the LUC Stritch School of Medicine, the LUC Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing and the Loyola Center for Fitness. Loyola's Gottlieb campus in Melrose Park includes the 255-licensed-bed community hospital, the Professional Office Building housing 150 private practice clinics, the Adult Day Care, the Gottlieb Center for Fitness, Loyola Center for Metabolic Surgery and Bariatric Care and the Loyola Cancer Care & Research at the Marjorie G. Weinberg Cancer Center at Melrose Park.

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