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Frostbite Overview

Frostbite occurs when tissues freeze. This condition happens when you are exposed to temperatures below the freezing point of skin. Hypothermia is the condition of developing an abnormally low body temperature. Frostbite and hypothermia are both cold-related medical emergencies.

The condition has long been recognized. A 5000-year-old pre-Columbian mummy discovered in the Chilean mountains offers the earliest documented evidence of frostbite. More recently, Napoleon's surgeon general, Baron Dominique Larrey, provided the first description of the mechanisms of frostbite in 1812, during his army's retreat from Moscow. He also noted the harmful effects of the freeze-thaw-freeze cycle endured by soldiers who would warm their frozen hands and feet over the campfire at night only to refreeze those same parts by the next morning.

Although frostbite used to be a military problem, it is now a civilian one as well. The nose, cheeks, ears, fingers, and toes are most commonly affected. Everyone is susceptible, even people who have been living in cold climates for most of their lives. Some groups of people at greatest risk for frostbite and hypothermia include those:

  • who spend a great deal of time outdoors, such as the homeless, hikers, hunters, etc.;
  • under the influence of alcohol;
  • who are elderly without adequate heating, food, and shelter;
  • who are exhausted or excessively dehydrated;
  • who are mentally ill.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/9/2014
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Frostbite Symptoms

Frostbite and Hypothermia Symptoms and Stages

Frostbite and hypothermia are the consequences of cold exposure and both can have long lasting effects.

Frostbite and hypothermia are the consequences of cold exposure and both can have long lasting effects. Not all organs in the body are created equal. While the body tries to maintain a constant temperature where heat production is balanced by heat loss, it is quite willing to sacrifice expendable parts like fingers and toes to protect vital organs like the heart and brain. When exposed to a cold environment, the body tries to keep blood circulating away from the skin where it can be cooled by the outside weather. Shivering starts to generate heat and can compensate well if the cold exposure is short-lived. If, however, the body remains in the cold, bad things can happen very quickly.

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Frostbite »

Frostbite is a cold-related injury characterized by freezing of tissue.

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