5 Things to Know About Frostbite - Crozer-Keystone Health System - PA

Published on January 13, 2016

5 Things to Know About Frostbite

Girl with Cold Hands

The Crozer Burn Center cares for patients
recovering from soft tissue diseases and
injuries that resemble burns, such as frostbite.

When you think of frostbite, you probably think of it as an injury risk to snowy mountain climbers trying to reach the peak of Mount Everest. However, frostbite can affect anyone who is exposed to below freezing temperatures, especially those wearing inadequate clothing for the weather.

Here’s everything you need to know about frostbite.

1. Frostbite Is More than Your Skin Freezing

Frostbite is caused by exposure of parts of your body to temperatures below freezing point, which causes freezing of your skin and underlying tissues – this is caused by a protective response.

Normally, your blood carries oxygen throughout your body to keep your body tissues healthy. However, when your body is exposed to extreme cold, blood vessels narrow, or constrict, diverting blood and oxygen away from your extremities to your vital organs to keep you alive. After time, the lack of blood and oxygen to your extremities and skin can start to damage the cells.

Ice crystals form and cells and blood vessels become damaged in areas impacted by frostbite. Additionally, blood clots can form in the small, constricted blood vessels, which further reduces the chance of blood and oxygen getting to those affected tissues.

2. Frostbite Occurs In Stages

Similar to burns, frostbite injuries are classified by their degree of injury and how deep the frostbite goes. Your skin has two layers: the outer layer, or epidermis, and the dermis, which is under the epidermis. A layer of fat and then deeper structures like muscles and tendons are beneath the dermis layer.

Frostnip is the first stage of frostbite, only affecting the epidermis. Frostnip doesn’t cause permanent skin damage. This mild form of frostbite causes your skin to pale or turn red and feel very cold. Stinging, burning and numbness can also occur. You can treat frostnip at home first by getting out of the cold and then changing out of wet clothes into dry clothes and immersing the affected area in warm (not hot!) water to thaw the tissue.

The second stage is superficial frostbite, affecting the epidermis and part of the dermis. With this stage skin appears reddened and turns white or pale. Your skin may stay soft, but ice crystals may form in the tissue.

From there, the degree of frostbite depends on how deep into the epidermis, the dermis, the fatty tissue and deeper structures.

3. Frostbite Requires Medical Attention

Although you can warm up and thaw the earlier stages of frostbite, as it progresses past those stages, it requires medical treatment because it can permanently damage skin, tissue, muscle and bones. Severe frostbite could lead to infection and nerve damage.

Frostbite affects all layers of your skin, including the tissues that lie below. If you have frostbite, you may experience numbness, loss of sensation of cold, and pain or discomfort. Joints or muscles may no longer work and large blisters usually form 24 to 48 hours after rewarming. The affected area turns black and hard as the tissue dies.

4. Certain Symptoms Mean You Need To See a Doctor

If you experience signs or symptoms of superficial or deep frostbite like white or pale skin, numbness or blistering, seek medical attention.

A fever and increased pain, swelling, redness or discharge from the area that was frostbitten should also signal you to seek medical treatment.

5. You Can Prevent It

There are many things you can do to avoid frostbite. First and foremost, limit the amount of time you spend outside in cold, wet or windy weather and pay attention to weather forecasts and wind chill readings – the most important way of preventing frostbite is to simply get out of the cold. When the weather is very cold and windy, exposed skin can develop frostbite in just a few minutes. Wear a hat, headband, mittens, well-fitting sock and sock liners to cover any exposed skin.

Dressing in layers of loose, warm clothing can also help prevent it. Air trapped between the layers of your clothes acts as insulation. Wear undergarments that wick moisture away from your skin and waterproof and windproof outer garments to keep you dry. You should change out of wet clothes as soon as possible.

Related Locations

eNewsletter Signup

Our eNewsletters from Crozer-Keystone Health System help keep you up-to-date on your health and well being. View recent editions or sign up to receive our free eNewsletters.