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Record low temps result in record high frostbite cases

WASHINGTON — The record low temperatures of recent days have resulted in a record high number of severe frostbite cases in the Washington area.

At MedStar Washington Hospital Center, the increase has been especially dramatic. The hospital serves as the region’s adult burn unit, where the most dire frostbite patients are taken for treatment.

Dr. Jeffrey Shupp, the hospital’s burn director, says they have admitted eight patients in the last week or so with severe frostbite, in sharp contrast to the one or two cases usually seen in the course of an entire winter. “To have this many in one particular time is a lot for us,” he says

Three of the patients have been released and will continue their care at various wound clinics. The rest remain hospitalized and could face surgery to remove and replace damaged tissue — the same procedures usually used to treat severe burns.

Detailed information on the patients’ identity is not available because of privacy laws. But it appears that none were homeless, and Shupp says, “none of the patients I know of were actually at work.”

What is known is that most of those admitted with severe frostbite were middle-aged and rather careless when it came to protecting their skin from the bitter cold.

“Only one patient was wearing gloves,” says Shupp, who points out that proper clothing is one of the best ways to prevent frostbite in sub-freezing weather.

He says numbness and tingling in the cold are indications of trouble, as are changes to the color of fingers or toes.

These warning signs are less apparent to someone who has been drinking alcohol, be it wine with dinner or a few beers or cocktails with buddies. So Shupp says, “if you are out with your friends and someone has had a little too much to drink, make sure you are taking care to keep them from exposure.”

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