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Frostbite and Hypothermia Symptoms and Stages (cont.)

What are the symptoms and stages of frostbite?

The stages of frostbite are similar to those of burns.

  • Frostnip or first degree frostbite is superficial and reversible but may cause significant pain when the extremity rewarms.
  • Second degree frostbite is characterized by blisters that form a few hours to a day after injury and signifies deeper tissue damage.
  • Third degree frostbite describes skin that has been damaged though all its layers and tissue that turns black and hard as it dies.
  • Fourth degree frostbite occurs when bone and tendon freeze.

It may take many days for the depth of frostbite to cause symptoms and the amount of damage to the tissue may not be known.

Cold is a dangerous element, so don't let hypothermia catch you and if you experience it, seek medical treatment early!

Picture of the stages of frostbitePicture of the stages of frostbite

What are the risk factors for frostbite and hypothermia?

Alcohol consumption is an important risk factor for getting frostbite and hypothermia. Aside from impairing judgment, it may cause blood vessels in the skin to dilate, sending blood to the body's surface where it is exposed to the cold weather causing just the opposite effect of what the body wants to do to, which is preserve heat. Alcohol also makes shivering less effective, decreasing heat production.

With decreased blood supply to the skin, the far reaches of the body's circulation are at risk for damage. Fingers, toes, ears, and nose are the first parts of the body to be at risk for frostbite. Without adequate blood supply to provide internal heat, water in the tissue can form small ice crystals and the first signs of frostbite begin. The skin may become cold, numb, and hard. The hands or feet can become clumsy and after a time, the skin can blister.

Medically reviewed by John A. Daller, MD; American Board of Surgery with subspecialty certification in surgical critical care


Auerbach P. Wilderness Medicine. 6th edition. United States. Mosby 2011

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/11/2017

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