About Frostbite

Overview

Frostbite is the freezing of the skin and underlying body tissues. Mild frostbite, known as frostnip, can be irritating, but doesn’t typically cause permanent damage. Frostbite occurs upon exposure to extremely cold temperatures and can take hold within minutes of exposure. The hands, feet, cheeks, ears, chin and nose are typically affected more than other parts of the body.

Stages

According to the Mayo Clinic, frostbite proceeds in stages. The first stage is frostnip, which does not cause permanent damage. Frostnip is characterized by prickling and numbness of the skin. If not caught in time, frostnip can lead to superficial frostbite. This second stage causes reddening of the skin that then turns waxy and pale. Upon warming and treatment, the area may swell, sting, burn or blister. If frostbite continues, the third stage, severe frostbite, will occur. In severe frostbite, the skin and tissues below it actually freeze, becoming numb and blistered before the tissue turns black and dies completely.

Symptoms

The symptoms of frostbite begin with pain, numbness or tingling in the affected area of the skin, which will first turn red, then white, before turning black as the cells die. The affected area will also feel cold to the touch, and the joints may become stiff. Upon warming the frostbitten area, the person may feel intense pain or tingling. Blisters or a scab-like black crust may form in areas that are severely affected by frostbite, although these may not appear until a few weeks after the frostbite exposure.

First Aid

The frostnip stage of frostbite can be treated with simple first aid, including immersing the area in warm water for 20 to 30 minutes and moving out of the cold. More serious cases of frostbite may require emergency first aid until the person can be brought to a hospital if the frostbite occurs in a place where it is difficult to obtain immediate medical aid. First aid in these circumstances should include immersion in warm water; the application of sterile dressings, including between frostbitten fingers or toes to keep them separated; and keeping the area protected from refreezing. The individual with frostbite should be brought to a hospital as soon as possible to receive professional treatment.

Treatment

Treatment for frostbite involves a controlled warming of the area while administering pain medication to control the pain that typically accompanies rewarming, explains the Mayo Clinic. The area will then be dressed and the patient given antibiotics to prevent infection from taking hold. If the frostbite is severe, the doctor may remove damaged tissue or amputate the limb if gangrene has set in.

Warnings

When attempting to help someone who has developed frostbite, care should be taken not to allow the area to thaw and then refreeze. If conditions are such that refreezing may occur, it is better to leave the area frozen until the individual can be brought to a hospital, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. The area should not be rubbed, massaged or heated with dry heat, such as from a hairdryer, fire or heating pad. If the individual is experiencing hypothermia, which often occurs in conjunction with frostbite, the hypothermia should be treated first, before the frostbite.

About this Author

Bridget Coila has been writing professionally since 1998 and specializes in health, nutrition, pregnancy and parenting topics. Some of her articles have appeared in “Oxygen,” “American Fitness” and on various websites. Coila has a Bachelor of Science in cell and molecular biology from the University of Cincinnati and over 10 years of medical research experience.