What is frostbite?

Frostbite is a type of injury that can occur when your skin’s exposed to the cold. Cold exposure can cause the top layer of your skin and some of the tissues beneath it to freeze.

Frostbite is most common in your extremities, such as your fingers, toes, ears, and nose.

In many cases, your skin can recover from frostbite. However, in severe cases, tissue death or loss can occur.

Let’s take a look at the different stages of frostbite, their signs and symptoms, and how they’re treated.

Your skin is your largest organ and consists of several distinct layers. It protects you and also allows you to perceive sensations from your environment through your sense of touch.

Blood vessels can be found throughout your body, including in your skin. They work to carry blood to the various tissues of your body in order to keep them healthy.

When you’re in the cold, your blood vessels constrict, becoming narrower to divert the flow of blood away from extremities such as your fingers and toes. This helps to maintain your core body temperature. Over time, the lack of blood flow to these areas can cause damage to your skin and nearby tissues.

Your risk for frostbite increases if:

  • you’re exposed to cold temperatures for long periods of time
  • cold temperatures are accompanied by wind
  • you’re at a higher altitude

Frostnip is the first stage of frostbite. It’s very mild and doesn’t damage your skin.

When you have frostnip, your skin will turn red and feel cold to the touch. If you stay in the cold, it may begin to feel numb or have a prickling sensation.

Frostnip can be treated with simple first aid measures that include preventing further exposure to cold and rewarming.

Rewarming can be accomplished by soaking the affected area in warm (not hot) water for 15 to 30 minutes. Rewarming using heat sources such as stoves or heating pads should be avoided, as these can lead to burns.

As your skin begins to warm up, you may feel some pain or tingling. You can take an over-the-counter pain medication such as ibuprofen to ease any discomfort.

During this stage of frostbite, your skin will begin to turn from a reddish color to a paler color. In some cases, it may appear blue.

Ice crystals may begin to form in your skin. As such, the affected area of your skin may have a hard or frozen feeling when you touch it.

Your skin may also begin to feel warm at this stage and you may observe some swelling. This is a sign that damage to your skin tissue is beginning to occur. The tissues below your skin are still intact, but prompt medical treatment is required to prevent further damage.

Rewarming should occur as soon as possible. Your doctor will give you pain medication to help with the pain that occurs with rewarming. After rewarming, they’ll wrap the injured area in order to protect it. Intravenous (IV) fluids may also be given to keep you hydrated.

Following rewarming, fluid-filled blisters may develop in the affected area. Your skin may appear to be blue or purple. You may also observe swelling and feel a burning or stinging sensation.

If you have blisters, your doctor may drain them. If any blisters appear infected, you’ll also be prescribed a course of antibiotics to treat the infection.

Many people can recover fully from superficial frostbite. New skin will form under any blisters or scabs. However, some people may have permanent problems that can include pain or numbness in the frostbitten area.

Deep frostbite is the most severe stage of frostbite and affects both your skin and the tissues that lie below.

If you’re experiencing deep frostbite, the skin of the area may have a blue or splotchy look to it. It may feel numb to sensations such as cold or pain. Muscles close to the affected area may not work properly. Blood-filled blisters may also develop in people with deep frostbite.

Deep frostbite requires immediate medical attention. Like the treatment for superficial frostbite, your doctor will rewarm the area. They’ll give you pain medication, wrap the area, and may provide IV fluids.

If you have deep frostbite, you may also receive a type of medication called a “clot-buster.” Very severe cases of frostbite can lead to development of blood clots. This type of medication may help to improve blood flow to the injured area.

Following rewarming, the area will appear black and feel hard. This is due to tissue death in the affected area. Large blisters may also develop.

Your doctor may wait for several weeks after your frostbite injury in order to determine the full extent of the damage. In some cases, a procedure or surgery may be required to remove the dead tissue. For example, a toe that’s been severely damaged by deep frostbite may need to be amputated.

As with some cases of superficial frostbite, people that have had deep frostbite may have lasting problems that can include pain or numbness as well as increased sensitivity to cold in the frostbitten area.

Frostbite happens when your skin and underlying tissues are damaged through exposure to cold.

Frostbite has several stages. Some, such as frostnip, don’t cause permanent skin damage and can be treated with basic first aid. Others, such as superficial frostbite and deep frostbite, require prompt medical attention to avoid permanent damage.

Be sure to follow the tips below to prevent frostbite:

  • Be aware of the weather forecast. Avoid spending extended periods of time in cold weather as well as coming into direct contact with metal surfaces or water while out in the cold.
  • Dress appropriately for cold weather. Wear things like mittens or gloves, hats that cover your ears, scarves, sunglasses, or ski masks. Outer garments should be waterproof and windproof.
  • Change out of wet clothes as soon as you can.
  • Stay hydrated and eat nutritious meals. Avoid alcohol, as it can make you lose body heat more quickly.
  • Be able to recognize the signs of frostbite. Remember that frostnip is a precursor to more serious frostbite. If you or someone else appears to be developing frostbite, seek warmth and medical attention as soon as possible.