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Record 26 people being treated for frostbite at UCHealth

Denver's UCHealth said the longer people wait to see a doctor, the higher likelihood of amputation.

COLORADO, USA — A record number of people at one time are being treated for frostbite at UCHealth's Burn and Frostbite Center.

The hospital said 26 patients are currently receiving treatment, and the center has seen a total of 47 people so far this season.

"We take care of probably about 50 frostbite patients a year, on average," said Dr. Anne Wagner, UCHealth's Burn and Frostbite Center medical director. "Our numbers have at least doubled this year, maybe even tripled."

Wagner said about 80% of her frostbite patients are people experiencing homelessness.

What is frostbite?

Frostbite is when the skin and other tissues get damaged from exposure to freezing temperature and happens when exposed skin gets very cold causing ice crystals to form. This leads to the blood vessels in that area freezing, causing the affected areas to go without blood, nutrients and oxygen. 

The burn and frostbite center wants people to be cognizant of frostbite symptoms. 

  • Shivering is the first sign the body is losing heat, so don’t ignore it.
  • Numbness.
  • Pale color to the skin.
  • Clumsy movements.
  • Pain that persists for 45 minutes after rewarming.
  • Following rewarming, increased redness or discoloration.

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What can you do if you suspect you have frostbite?

Doctors said people who think they have frostbite should get into a warm environment and remove wet clothing. 

Don't rub affected areas! Doctors said rubbing can cause more damage. 

People that believe they have frozen fingers, toes or other extremities should wait to rewarm the affected areas until they're sure they won't refreeze, doctors said.

"If [they’re] outside and they come in and they notice that the extremity is white, hard, cold, numb, they can’t feel the tips of their fingers and once it starts to warm up, it gets extremely painful, it will start to turn a color, but it’s a very slow process," Wagner said.

Wagner said people should rewarm their frozen extremities quickly and said the best way to do that is with warm water at about 104 degrees.

People with frostbite need to get medical attention within 12-24 hours of rewarming the affected areas, according to doctors. This can help save the areas from possible amputation. 

RELATED: Here's what to know about wind chill and frostbite

Effects of frostbite

The possible long-term effects include: 

  • Change in sensation of the injured area, including cold sensitivity, muscle weakness or joint stiffness.
  • Chronic pain, secondary to nerve damage.
  • Damage to sweat glands, cracking skin and nail loss.
  • Possible need for amputation of the damaged digits or limb.

RELATED: 'It is going to be life or death' | Extreme cold brings deadly consequences for people experiencing homelessness

RELATED: Protect your pets from the cold or face $999 fine, jail time

How you can help

Organizations are accepting donations, like blankets and warm clothing, for those in need. Due to COVID-19, all donors are asked to call in advance to confirm the location is still accepting items and learn of any guidelines/restrictions.  

Clothes to Kids of Denver – (720) 379-4630

Comitis Crisis Center on the Anschutz Campus – (303) 341-9160

Denver Coalition for the Homeless – (303) 293-2217

Denver Rescue Mission – (303)294-0157

Haven of Hope – (303) 607-0855

Impact Humanity – (720) 629 -2619

Samaritan House – (303) 294-0241

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