Definition

What is frostbite?

Frostbite is a condition caused by freezing of the skin and underlying tissues. First, your skin becomes very cold and red, then numb, hard and pale. Frostbite is most popular on the fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin. Exposed skin in cold, windy weather is most vulnerable to frostbite. However, frostbite can also occur on skin covered by gloves or other clothing. Frostnip, the first stage of frostbite, doesn’t cause permanent skin damage. You can treat very mild frostbite with first-aid measures, including rewarming your skin. All other frostbite requires medical attention because it can damage skin, tissues, muscle and bones. Possible complications of severe frostbite include infection and nerve damage.

How common is frostbite?

This condition can occur at any age and it commonly occurs in the country which has cold weather.

However, it can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of frostbite?

There are a great number of signs and symptoms of frostbite. However, these are the most common one, include:

  • At first, cold skin and a prickling feeling
  • Numbness
  • Red, white, bluish-white or grayish-yellow skin
  • Hard or waxy-looking skin
  • Clumsiness due to joint and muscle stiffness
  • Blistering after rewarming, in severe cases

Frostbite is considered as most common on the fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin. Because of skin numbness, you may not realize you have frostbite until someone else points it out.

It is believed that frostbite occurs in several stages:

Frostnip

The first stage of frostbite is frostnip. With this mild form of frostbite, your skin pales or turns red and feels very cold. Continued exposure leads to prickling and numbness in the affected area. As your skin warms, you may feel pain and tingling. Fortunately, frostnip doesn’t permanently damage the skin.

Superficial frostbite

The second stage of frostbite appears as reddened skin that turns white or pale. The skin may remain soft, but some ice crystals may form in the tissue. Your skin may begin to feel warm, a sign of serious skin involvement. If you treat frostbite with rewarming at this stage, the surface of your skin may appear mottled, blue or purple. And you may notice stinging, burning and swelling. A fluid-filled blister may appear 24 to 36 hours after rewarming the skin.

Severe frostbite

As frostbite progresses, it influences all layers of the skin, including the tissues that lie below. You may have numbness, losing all sensation of cold, pain or discomfort in the affected area. Joints or muscles may no longer work. Large blisters form 1-2 days after rewarming. Afterward, the area turns black and hard as the tissue dies. 

When should I see my doctor?

You should contact your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Signs and symptoms of superficial or deep frostbite — such as white or pale skin, numbness, or blisters
  • Increased pain, swelling, redness or discharge in the area that was frostbitten
  • Fever
  • New, unexplained symptoms

Get emergency medical help if you suspect hypothermia, a condition in which your body loses heat faster than it can be produced. Signs and symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • Intense shivering
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness and loss of coordination

Causes

What causes frostbite?

It is proved that frostbite occurs when skin and underlying tissues freeze. The most common cause of frostbite is exposure to cold-weather conditions. But it can also be engendered by direct contact with ice, freezing metals or very cold liquids.

Some specific conditions that lead to frostbite include:

  • Wearing clothing that isn’t suitable for the conditions you’re in. For example, it doesn’t protect against cold, windy or wet weather or it’s too tight.
  • Staying out in the cold and wind too long. Risk increases as air temperature falls below -150C, even with low wind speeds. In wind chill of – 270C, frostbite can occur on exposed skin in less than 30 minutes.
  • Touching materials such as ice, cold packs or frozen metal.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for frostbite?

You may have higher risks for this condition if you are experiencing these following conditions:

  • Not appropriately dressed for freezing conditions
  • Your body is weakened due to fatigue, hunger, dehydration, physical labor, injury, or alcohol consumption
  • You smoke a lot.
  • You suffer from medical conditions such as diabetes, depression, cardiovascular disease, or peripheral vascular disease
  • You take beta-blocker medications

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is frostbite diagnosed?

If your doctor suspects that you may experience this condition, a physical examination will be performed and some tests will be also recommended by your doctor. Some common tests may include:

  • X-ray
  • MRI
  • Bone scans

How is frostbite treated?

For immediate first aid treatment, do the following:

  • Seek shelter from the cold.
  • Warm your hands by tucking them under your arms.
  • If possible, go indoors and remove wet clothing and jewelry.
  • Once inside, place your hands and feet in warm water, and cover the rest of your body with a blanket.
  • Avoid sources of heat such as lamps, fire, or heating pads. These can burn frostbitten skin.
  • If you think you’re dehydrated, drink warm drinks.
  • See a doctor as soon as possible.

You can treat most cases of frostbite by warming the affected areas in water. A doctor will also sterilize the affected skin and wrap it in dressings. When skin is raw from frostbite, you’re prone to getting an infection. If your skin is infected, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage frostbite?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with frostbite:

  • Take all medications, antibiotics or pain medicine, as prescribed by your doctor. For milder cases of frostbite, take over-the-counter ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) to reduce pain and inflammation.
  • For superficial frostbite that has been rewarmed, apply aloe vera gel or lotion to the affected area several times a day to reduce inflammation.
  • Avoid further exposure to cold and wind.
  • Don’t walk on frostbitten feet.
  • Don’t apply direct heat or rub the area.
  • Don’t break blisters that may develop. Blisters act like a bandage. Allow blisters to break on their own

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Review Date: July 11, 2017 | Last Modified: July 11, 2017

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