Frostbite Signs

Frostbite is damage to superficial skin and, in some cases, deeper body tissues, as a result of exposure to extremely cold temperatures. While mild forms of frostbite may cause temporary symptoms of numbness, more severe frostbite can lead to skin discoloration, blistering and permanent damage of skin and underlying muscle and nerves.

Changes in Skin Color and Sensation

According to the Mayo Clinic, frostbite most commonly affects the skin on small areas of the body, including your fingertips, toes, nose and ears. Initially, the exposed body part may throb with pain. You may then experience a tingling, itchiness or a pins-and-needles sensation as if that part of the body has “fallen asleep.” With continued exposure to the cold, the area usually loses sensation completely, and becomes numb, according to the National Institutes of Health. The skin may also be hard to the touch and take on a waxy appearance. Areas of worsening frostbite may feel unusually warm to the touch, and the skin may start to turn white in color. Numbness may also lead to other symptoms like muscle stiffness and clumsiness due to limited use of the affected body part, according to the Mayo Clinic.

After thawing the skin, areas of mild frostbite may tingle or prickle, turn reddish in color and feel cold to the touch, while areas that are more severely affected may sting, burn and turn bluish in color after warming.


Severe frostbite that spreads more deeply into the skin can cause blisters to develop. According to the Merck Manuals Online Medical Library, while less severe frostbite cases exhibit blisters filled with a clear fluid, cases with severe tissue damage often develop blood-filled blisters containing a reddish fluid.


Severe cases of frostbite can lead to permanent damage of deep structures including nerves, muscle and bone, according to the National Institutes of Health. If a person spends too much time in extremely cold temperatures, the blood vessels that feed the affected body part may also become damaged, cutting off blood supply and leading to death of the skin and underlying tissues. This condition is known as gangrene. According to Merck Manuals, wet gangrene is accompanied by a bacterial infection that causes the skin to become soft to the touch and gray in color. To avoid the spread of infection, amputation is often required. Dry gangrene is characterized by skin that turns black in color and has a dry, shriveled and leathery texture.

About this Author

Based in New York City, Tricia Mangan began her writing career in 2001. She has co-authored a National Cancer Institute report and a number of research articles that have appeared in medical journals. Tricia holds a Master of Arts in clinical psychology from Stony Brook University and boasts diverse clinical, research and teaching experience.