Frostbite: Things you should know

Frostbite: Things you should know

Frostbite is a form of injury in which the skin and the tissues under it are weakened by severe cold.

A variety of wounds and conditions, including frostnip, chilblains, frostbite, hypothermia, and trench foot, can be caused by severe weather.

Frostbite can cause physical harm that is permanent and may even lead to amputation.

We clarify the signs, causes, and potential remedies for frostbite in this article.

What is frostbite?

Frostbite occurs in extremely cold temperatures or after prolonged exposure to freezing conditions.

Blood flow to some areas of the body will drop to dangerously low levels in extremely cold temperatures, or if a person experiences exposure to freezing conditions for a prolonged time. The fingers, toes, hands and feet contain certain body parts.

The cells and tissues can die when parts of the body do not receive enough oxygen-rich blood.

An individual may begin to feel pain after just a few seconds at the freezing point, which is 32 degrees Fahrenheit (oF), or zero degrees Celcius (oC). It is possible that frostnip, which refers to the early stages of frostbite, triggers this pain. Wet conditions can make it worse.

The blood vessels near the surface of any exposed skin begin to narrow in an effort to retain heat in the center of the body when temperatures drop to freezing.

As circulation decreases, tiny blood clots may happen. The tissues and fluids may freeze in the affected section, causing the death of soft tissue. The outcome could be gangrene, even leading to amputation.

The physical harm can be serious and long-lasting due to frostbite.

Frostbite can affect any part of the body, but the hands, ears, feet, nose and lips are typically affected.

There were 16,911 deaths due to severe cold in the United States between 1999 and 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDA). However, not all of these deaths were frostbite-related.


Doctors define degrees of frostbite in a similar way to burns, depending on severity.

First-degree frostbite, or frostnip
This only affects the surface of the skin.

Pain and scratching are early signs. The skin then produces patches of white or yellow and can become numb. Frostnip does not normally cause permanent damage because of its surface-level effects.

However for a short period of time, an area of skin with first-degree frostbite can lose sensitivity to heat and cold.

Second-degree frostbite

This can cause freezing and hardening of the skin, but does not affect the deep tissues.

After 2 days, purple blisters can grow in areas that froze. Such blisters can turn dark and become hard, taking 3-4 weeks to heal.

An individual who has nerve damage with second-degree frostbite can experience numbness, pain, or complete loss of sensation in the region. It is conceivable that the reduced sense of heat and cold is permanent.

Third- and fourth-degree frostbite

The damage penetrates further into individuals with the most serious presentations of frostbite, causing deep tissue injury.

Muscles, blood vessels, nerves, and tendons freeze. The skin has a smooth and waxy feel. Some individuals can lose use of an extremity, such as a foot or a hand, for example. This is permanent for certain individuals.


Gangrene could be developed by people with severe frostbite. The death of body tissue is called gangrene. In order to prevent tissue death from spreading, amputation may be necessary for areas that become gangrenous, such as fingers or toes.

Whether the individual does not receive rapid care, or if there is no amputation of the finger, toe, or limb, gangrene will lead to life-threatening illness throughout the body.

Frostbite can lead to systemic diseases, such as disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC). In DIC, small blood clots form in the blood vessels. There may also be cardiovascular collapse and sepsis.

These situations can all be fatal. Frostbite is an emergency medical condition.


Keeping warm during winter season
Keeping warm to thaw areas that have frostbite is the main focus of treatment.

Care focuses on warming the frostbitten areas or thawing them.

Nevertheless, stop rubbing or massaging an area that has experienced third or fourth-degree frostbite to warm up soft tissue, as this can sometimes worsen tissue damage.

A individual with frostbite should switch from a warm space or atmosphere to cold temperatures. Remove and replace all wet clothes with dry ones. It will help keep them warm and protect frostbitten body parts by covering a person who has frostbite with blankets.

The process of warming should be gradual. Until normal color returns, a person with frostbite should place affected body parts in warm water. When normal circulation resumes, these areas can become red and swollen. When the skin appears to be a natural color, remove the frostbitten region from the warm water.

Avoid direct heat, such as a naked flame. In frostbitten areas, a person may not be able to detect high temperatures, and without realizing it the individual may burn the area.

After removing the body portion from the warm water, gently dry the area. Place a sterile dressing loosely over the region to cover it. To treat any infection or blisters in the skin, a doctor can prescribe an antibiotic.

Risk factors

There is a chance of frostbite and other cold-weather injuries for individuals who spend a lot of time outdoors in cold weather. Children, older people, and those that are homeless are particularly susceptible.

Factors that raise frostbite chances include:

  • medical conditions, such as exhaustion, dehydration, circulatory problems, diabetes, hunger, and malnutrition
  • mental illness, panic, or fear, as these may affect decision-making in freezing temperatures
  • cigarettes, alcohol, or drug abuse
  • some medications, such as beta blockers, due to their effects on blood circulation
  • previous injuries from frostbite
  • age, because infants and older people experience more difficulty in retaining body heat
  • wearing constrictive clothing or footwear
  • exposure to wet and windy weather
  • high altitude, because of low temperatures and low oxygen levels

In order to protect themselves from frostbite, people who have a disease that affects blood vessels and circulation should take special precautions.


Suitable, comfortable, and waterproof clothing will be needed for anyone planning to spend extended periods outdoors in freezing temperatures. To prevent frostbite and other cold injuries, those working outdoors or playing outdoor winter sports during extreme weather must plan well.

If an individual is unable to avoid spending time outside in severe cold, the following risk reduction measures will help:

  • Wearing adequate clothing, preferably in layers, as this traps the warm air inside.
  • Using a waterproof outer layer.
  • Using supplementary oxygen at altitudes of 10,000 feet or above to improve blood flow.
  • Being aware of symptoms, such as redness, tingling, numbness, pins and needles, and pain.

A person starting to show symptoms of frostbite should seek medical attention.