Frostbite is damage to the skin and other body tissues caused by exposure to cold temperatures.
Frostbite can occur anywhere on the body, but it is common on small body parts such as the ears, nose, chin, cheeks, fingers, and toes.
First aid for frostbite on the hands and fingers and other body parts includes:
- Moving to a warmer area as soon as possible
- Removing wet clothing
- Warming the affected area
- Immerse the affected body part in warm (NOT hot) water which may be painful
- Use body heat (for example, hold frostbitten hands and fingers under the armpits)
- Avoiding things that could worsen the damage:
- Do not rub or massage the affected area
- Avoid warming the area if it might get cold again before you are able to see a medical professional
- Avoid using stove, radiator, heat lamp, or fire to warm the area, because skin numbed by frostbite may accidentally burn
- Do not walk on frostbitten feet that, unless it is necessary to get to a warm place
If the above steps do not alleviate frostbite symptoms, go to a hospital’s emergency department right away.
Medical treatments for frostbite on the hands, fingers, and other body parts includes:
- Medicine to help with blood flow
- Tetanus shot
- Surgery to remove dead tissue or amputation to remove a severely damaged body part
What Are Symptoms of Frostbite?
Symptoms of frostbite include:
- Affected area feels painful and cold
- Pins and needles feeling
- Numb skin
- Skin might look white or gray and feel hard or waxy
- Trouble moving the affected area
- Blisters with fluid or blood inside (may develop after the body part warms up)
- Damaged skin that has turned black (in severe cases, may appear days later)
What Causes Frostbite?
When the body is exposed to cold temperatures, it responds by narrowing blood vessels. When this occurs, blood flow to the extremities slows so blood flow to vital organs can increase.
As the blood flow from the extremities is redirected, these parts of the body get colder, and the fluid in the tissue can freeze into ice crystals that can cause severe cell and tissue damage in the affected area. Low blood flow also deprives the tissues of oxygen and if blood flow is not restored, the tissue will eventually die.
Risk factors for developing frostbite include:
- Participating in winter and high-altitude sports, such as mountaineering and skiing
- Being stranded in extreme cold weather conditions
- Jobs in which people work outdoors in harsh conditions for long periods of time, such as soldiers, sailors, and rescue workers
- Being homeless
- Age: very young and elderly are less able to regulate body temperature
- Certain medical conditions that cause blood vessel damage or circulation problems,
- Raynaud's phenomenon
- Use of medications that constrict blood vessels such as beta-blockers
- Drinking alcohol/being drunk
- Use of illicit drugs
Most people think frostbite can only occur outside, but cold objects placed on the skin, such as ice packs, can also cause frostbite. When using an ice pack, put a cloth or towel between the ice and the skin, and apply to the affected area for 15 minutes every 1 or 2 hours.
How Is Frostbite Diagnosed?
Frostbite is diagnosed with a patient history and physical examination of the affected areas. Often the appearance of the frostbitten body part with a history of cold exposure is sufficient to make the diagnosis and no further testing is needed.
Tests that may be used to confirm a diagnosis of frostbite or to assess the extent of the damage include:
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
- Bone scan
What Are Complications of Frostbite?
Complications of frostbite include:
- Infection of the affected body part, such as tetanus or sepsis (which is serious)
- Hypothermia in severe cases, in which the body temperature drops below 95°F/35°C
- Constant shivering
- Low energy
- Cold or pale skin
- Fast breathing (hyperventilation)
- Loss of consciousness
- Shallow breathing
- Weak pulse
How Do You Prevent Frostbite?
Frostbite can be prevented in most cases by not staying out in the cold for extended periods of time.
- Dress warmly and wear:
- A hat
- Face protection, such as a ski mask
- Sunglasses or goggles
- Mittens, which keep hands warmer than gloves
- Warm, water-resistant shoes or boots
- Layers of clothing such as long underwear, fleece or wool clothing, and a coat and pants that protect against wind, rain, and snow
- Eat enough when you are out in the cold
- Don’t drink alcohol
- Don’t smoke
- Avoid contact with water or metal
- Tell people where you are going
- Carry emergency supplies in case you are outside longer than planned
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