What is frostbite?

Fact Checked

Frostbite occurs once the bodily tissues are damaged after being exposed to cold water or cold temperature. Understandably, being too cold can lead to health issues. When the body temperature drops excessively low, hypothermia sets in. Remember that both hypothermia and frostbite are considered as medical emergencies.


Frostbite is caused by exposure to very cold water or temperatures or prolonged exposure to the cold. In most cases, the fingers, toes, ears and the face are initially affected.

The cold can affect both the outer skin and tissues below the skin such as the nerves, muscles and joints. Take note that frostbite can be mild, moderate and severe depending on the exposure of the individual.

Symptoms of frostbite

  • Numbness
    The cold can affect both the outer skin and tissues below the skin such as the nerves, muscles and joints.
  • Reddening (mild cases)
  • “Pins and needles” sensation
  • Hardening or rigidity of exposed skin
  • Pain
  • Pale or waxy color (severe cases)
  • Blistering or scabs
  • Swelling

Who are at risk?

Any individual who has been exposed to very cold temperatures are at risk. Factors that increase the risk for frostbite to develop include the following:

  • Smoking
  • Using medications for high blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Poor circulation
  • Peripheral vascular disease
  • Elderly and infants
  • Raynaud’s disease or phenomenon
  • Incorrectly dressed for cold weather
  • Drinking alcoholic beverages or using drugs


When planning a trip to areas with cold temperatures, it is important to dress warmly. It is recommended to layer the clothes used, use 2 pairs of socks, mittens, hats and scarves. Do not forget to keep the ears properly covered. In addition, it is best to opt for waterproof and windproof clothing.

Make sure that the clothes and boots used are not too tight since this can lead to poor circulation. If possible, avoid staying in confined positions and continue moving to maintain the flow of blood in order to avoid disrupted circulation.

Management of frostbite

If the individual starts to experience any of the symptoms, it is vital to seek medical help right away. Once medical care is available, you have to remove all soiled clothes, wrap the affected area with a sterile cloth and bring the individual to the nearest hospital so that further can be started.

In case medical care is not readily accessible, you have to ensure that the individual stays warm and does not refreeze. If the unthawed areas refreeze, it can lead to further damage. When performing the thawing process, take note of the following:

  • Remove all soiled clothing
  • Elevate or raise the affected area slightly
  • Start the warming process by immersing the affected area in warm water (around 105 degrees F). Since the area might be numb, you have to be careful not to burn the skin with hot water. Remember that the burn can cause more damage to the tissues. Once the skin becomes soft, stop the warming process.
  • Wrap the area using sterile cloth. If the fingers or toes are affected, cover each digit separately.
  • If possible, instruct the individual not to move the affected area and avoid rubbing them since it can lead to tissue damage.

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