Frostbite is an insidious threat. While it can cause the same level of tissue damage as a severe burn, it doesn't create the reflexive pain response that intense heat produces — instead, it slowly numbs your peripheral nerves. By the time you feel pain or notice visual symptoms, the damage may have already been done.
In the past, we wrote a comprehensive guide to frostbite diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. Since then, a new method of frostbite treatment has undergone testing in Canada's frigid Yukon territory, and the results are promising. This research was spearheaded by Josianne Gauthier, a pharmacist at Whitehorse General Hospital, and her colleague Dr. Alex Poole.
The pair were inspired by European doctors who have used a drug called Iloprost to treat frostbite. Iloprost is a vasodilator used to treat pulmonary arterial hypertension — in simple terms, it opens up blood vessels to alleviate conditions which cause high blood pressure. Frostbite constricts blood vessels near the skin to consolidate warm blood at the core, so it appears that Iloprost counteracts this by restoring blood flow to the extremities.
Poole said, “At the time, this approach was not well-known [in Canada], and the drug was not available for use in North America.” Gauthier and Poole worked with Health Canada to receive special permission for limited testing of Iloprost in the Yukon. Initial tests produced encouraging results — so far, two patients with severe frostbite have been treated with a combination of rapid rewarming and Iloprost, and both patients were able to avoid amputation and serious long-term damage.
This study has encouraged other hospitals in Canada to apply for permission to use the drug. If results continue to produce positive results, it may lead to widespread adoption of Iloprost for frostbite treatment in Canada and potentially even the United States. However, Poole reiterated in an interview that quick access to professional medical attention is the key to recovery from frostbite:
“It is critically important to seek care for frostbite within the first 24 hours of exposure. Unfortunately, many cases of the injury still go unchecked, or people wait too long to seek medical assistance.”
For more information on frostbite diagnosis, treatment, and prevention, read our article titled “Frostbite 411”.