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Tips on Avoiding Frostbite

Nordic Ski Frostbite Injury Prevention for Racers
Michael S. Broton MD, CAQ SM

As the temperatures drop risk increases for cold-related injuries to Nordic Skiers such as hypothermia, frostbite, eye injuries and asthma. Cold-injury risk increases with certain behaviors such as tobacco and alcohol use and in participants with diseases that affect blood vessels such as diabetes or peripheral vascular disease.

Frostbite is a term to describe the freezing and dying of skin in response to cold conditions. The most at-risk locations on the body include the ears, hands, face, fingers, toes, eyes and male genitalia. Frostnip is the earliest stage of frostbite when damage remains reversible. Risk of frostbite increases as temperatures drop further below freezing (32° F) and increase significantly below zero degrees F. Minnesotans know it’s not just the ambient temperature, but the wind that creates risk. At a windchill of minus 19° F it takes approximately 30 minutes for flesh to freeze. When you consider that marathon ski racers may take several hours to complete a course a good plan is required to reduce the risk of frostbite. Some tips to consider, particularly as the windchill drops below zero include:

  • Wear competition glasses or goggles. Corneal frostbite can cause permanent vision loss.
  • Cover up exposed flesh. Absolutely cover the ears as frostbite is extremely common here. Buffs are a great way to cover necks and exposed skin. Balaclavas can lend another layer of protection
  • Remove exposed metal jewelry. Metal freezes faster than skin and then freezes surrounding tissue.
  • Wear windscreen briefs for male genitalia. Frostbite on genitals should obviously be avoided.
  • Use moleskin cut-outs on cheeks to prevent frostbite. Vaseline is used by some skiers, but is not proven to reduce risk.
  • Help other skiers by pointing out areas of whiteness that may suggest frostnip or frostbite.
  • Stay hydrated and fueled
  • Ensure ski boots and poles straps are not too tight as this can restrict blood flow.
  • Seek shelter and medical attention should you get frostbite.
  • Avoid refreezing frostbite once it occurs, as this makes the injury significantly worse.

If you do not have the correct equipment for conditions, consider asking experienced skiers for advice including at your local ski shop or consider not racing. With proper protection planning you can still have a great race experience.