Frostnip is the stage before frostbite begins. Though it’s an injury, the skin is still pliable and there’s no permanent tissue damage unless it escalates into frostbite. Frostnip, which occurs due to vasoconstriction, can develop into frostbite if the tissues become frozen. If frostbite advances, the damage isn’t reversible.
Frostnip is the precursor to frostbite, which has three different stages of progression. These stages include:
Frostnip occurs when the tissue is cooling because of the constriction of blood vessels and the resulting inadequate blood supply to the area. Your skin may get pale or turn red and feel extremely cold or numb.
Superficial or mild frostbite
Superficial (mild) frostbite is when true frostbite starts to take hold. The reddened skin may become pale or white, and some ice crystals start to form within the skin. Your skin may actually feel warm to you, which is a sign of damage. Upon warming, your skin may look mottled or purple and fluid-filled blisters may appear up to 36 hours after warming the skin back up.
Severe frostbite occurs when the frostbite has gone beyond the outer layers of the skin and affected the deep tissues underneath. You may notice complete numbness, pain, or discomfort. Surrounding muscles may not work and you’ll experience blisters, often filled with blood, a day or two after rewarming. There can be permanent tissue death at this stage, where the affected areas become hard and black.
Frostnip’s symptoms are much milder than frostbite, but being able to recognize them is important so you can stop the progression to frostbite.
Frostnip will irritate the skin. The affected area may sting, prickle, or burn, and have a deep cold feeling. This will progress into a tingling or a numbness. The skin may become red, white, or yellowish, but the skin will still be pliable and feel soft.
Many people describe an intense burning sensation as the skin begins to warm up and thaw out.
Frostnip occurs when skin is exposed to extreme cold for a sustained period of time. The body limits blood flow to your extremities in order to conserve heat. Cold weather injuries are most common on exposed skin. Ears, cheeks, fingers, toes, and noses are most likely to be affected by frostnip.
It’s also possible to develop frostnip if you aren’t wearing warm enough clothes, or if your clothes don’t protect against wind or wet weather. It’s important to change your socks regularly, as sweaty feet or “trench feet” can cause freezing. When feet are wet they lose heat 25 times faster than when they’re dry.
It’s also possible for exposure to cold under other circumstances to cause frostnip. Prolonged contact to something like an ice pack or frozen products can cause freezing of the skin to occur, which is why you should:
- always apply cold therapy to an area for no more than 15 minutes
- never apply ice or frozen materials directly to the skin without a towel or cloth between them
Frostnip can be treated by gradually warming the skin up. If possible, get away from the cold that’s causing your injury. Move inside and put on warm, dry clothing. If you can’t do so, try to protect the skin from further exposure until you can, and don’t thaw out the skin if you suspect it will be frozen again soon.
You can rewarm the skin using warm — but not hot — water, and gradually returning the skin to its healthy state. You don’t want to put hot water or air directly onto the frostnip as it’s thawing out or you could risk burning yourself. You also shouldn’t apply direct heat, like a heating pad, right to the affected area.
If you can move the affected area, like your fingers or toes, it’s recommended to do so as they rewarm. You’ll likely feel tingling or burning as the skin rewarms, and you may see an increase in redness. This is normal.
For frostnip, you can apply aloe vera gel to the affected area two to three times per day. This may help reduce inflammation and discomfort.
You can also take over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen to help with the inflammation and pain. Aspirin may be preferred over ibuprofen in more severe injuries. However, only adults should take aspirin as it can lead to Reye’s syndrome in children.
If blisters form after cold exposure, this is consistent with frostbite. Make an appointment to see your doctor for further treatment. They may prescribe you antibiotics to prevent infection. They can also provide treatment and guidance for wound care.
As long as frostnip is stopped before it progresses into frostbite, the outlook is excellent. Many individuals with frostnip never even need to see a doctor and are able to rewarm the skin safely on their own.
Carefully monitor frostnip. Symptoms that frostnip may have developed into frostbite include:
- red skin turning whiter or paler
- losing the sensation of cold, or even feeling warmth in the affected area
- the skin starting to become less pliable and soft
- pain increasing further
Just as it’s important to notice the signs of frostbite, it’s also important to remember that prevention is highly preferable to treatment. You can help prevent frostnip and frostbite with some of the following techniques:
- Always choose suitable clothing for your environment. Clothes that protect against cold, wind, and water will be your best bet. Use scarves, hats, and gloves to protect extremities that would otherwise be prone to frostnip.
- Never apply cold therapy directly to the skin. Place a cloth or towel between ice packs and your skin, and don’t leave them on for more than 15 minutes.
- Change your socks regularly to keep your feet dry. Moisture-wicking socks can help with this.
- Stay hydrated before you go out into the cold.
- Don’t drink alcohol before going out in cold weather. It can cause you to lose body heat faster.