HEALTH ENCYCLOPEDIA

Diseases & Conditions A - Z
powered by Talix

Frostbite

Overview

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 wind chills.

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 Frostbite?

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 alcohol consumption
  • 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 beta-blocker medications

Young children and the elderly are also more likely to suffer from frostbite.

What Are the Symptoms of Frostbite?

Most cases of frostbite include the following symptoms:

  • 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 symptoms emerge:

  • blisters on the skin
  • skin turns black
  • 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:

  • fever
  • dizziness
  • swelling, 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 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.

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 of Frostbite?

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 Frostbite?

The 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.


Content licensed from:

Written by: The Healthline Editorial Team
Medically reviewed on: Feb 05, 2016: William A Morrison, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
health
TOOLS
Symptom Search
Enter your symptoms in our Symptom Checker to find out possible causes of your symptoms. Go.
Drug Interaction Checker
Enter any list of prescription drugs and see how they interact with each other and with other substances. Go.
Pill Identifier
Enter its color and shape information, and this tool helps you identify it. Go.
Drugs A-Z
Find information on drug interactions, side effects, and more. Go.

Eating Raw Cookie Dough is Even Riskier, FDA Warns

The FDA issued an official warning regarding the E. coli risk associated with consuming raw cookie dough containing contaminated flour.