Frostbite occurs when the skin is
exposed to extreme or prolonged cold. The skin freezes, as do tissues beneath
the surface of the skin. In extreme cases, muscle, nerves, and blood vessels
may also freeze.
Skin may freeze within minutes when
exposed to temperatures that fall below freezing. Even if temperatures are
above freezing, the skin is likely to freeze if it’s wet or exposed to severe
Frostbite also occurs when your skin
directly contacts very cold surfaces. This type of exposure may immediately
freeze the skin that touches the frozen surface.
Who Is at Risk for
You’re more likely to suffer frostbite
when exposed to cold weather under any of the following circumstances:
- you’re not
appropriately dressed for freezing conditions
- your body is
weakened due to fatigue, hunger, dehydration, physical labor, injury, or
- you smoke
(smoking narrows blood vessels and slows down circulation, allowing frostbite
to advance more rapidly)
- you suffer
from medical conditions such as diabetes, depression, cardiovascular disease,
or peripheral vascular disease (these conditions may weaken your ability to
notice and appropriately respond to the cold)
- you take
Young children and the elderly are
also more likely to suffer from frostbite.
What Are the Symptoms of
Most cases of frostbite include the
- skin feels
prickly and/or numb
- skin is
discolored (red, white, gray, or yellow)
- pain around
the exposed area
Frostbite is severe when the following
- blisters on
- skin turns
- joints and
muscles are stiff or not functioning
Regardless of the severity of
frostbite, seek medical care if you have frostbite and any of the following:
redness, or discharge in the frostbitten area
How Is Frostbite Diagnosed?
Most cases of frostbite are diagnosed
based on a physical exam, and your description of where, when, and how the
frostbite occurred. If frostbite is severe, X-rays or bone scans may be used to
assess damage to bone and muscle.
How Is Frostbite Treated?
For immediate first aid treatment, do
- Seek shelter from
- 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
- 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
In the most extreme cases, bone,
muscle, and nerves experience damage. Amputation surgery may be necessary.
Doctors may try to repair tissues with drugs called thrombolytics, which
they’ll deliver intravenously (through a vein). These drugs can cause severe
bleeding, and are usually a last resort to avoid amputation.
What Are the Complications
Your body’s natural response to
extreme cold is to direct blood to your heart and lungs. Keeping these organs
warm prevents hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when your body can't produce
enough heat to protect itself from the cold.
You should treat
hypothermia before treating frostbite. While frostbite is painful and can
result in permanent damage to exposed areas, hypothermia is a more serious cold
weather threat. Frostbite on your arms and legs can indicate hypothermia
because it takes a while for frostbite to spread that far. Frostbite usually
occurs on your toes, nose, cheeks, ears, and chin.
How Can I Prevent
best thing you can do to prevent frostbite is to dress appropriately for severe
weather. Be aware of weather forecasts before you go out. Don’t plan to spend
an extended amount of time outside when the weather is below freezing. Avoid
going outside when temperatures fall below 0ºF.
If you plan to be outside in cold
weather, wear multiple layers of clothing. Be sure that none of your skin is
exposed. Your clothing should be loose-fitting and waterproof.
Sometimes, you can’t anticipate
frostbite. You never know when your car will break down. For that reason, it's
good to keep an emergency kit handy with blankets, gloves, hats, and
nonperishable snacks. Being prepared helps you stay protected.