Most everyone has heard the term “frostbite”, but many people still don’t understand what the term actually means. It is a true medical condition marked by tissue damage caused by exposure to extreme cold. Frostbite is a localized condition, and happens most frequently to areas furthest away from the heart, the center of blood circulation. People most frequently get frostbitten fingers and toes, but it can affect other areas of the body as well.

How can I prevent frostbite?

Frostbite can be extremely painful, and can cause permanent tissue damage, including the loss of digits. However, it is fairly easy to prevent if you follow a few simple rules.

Keep extremities covered when the temperature dips below freezing. Wear multiple light layers of clothing, including a hat covering your ears and gloves. Though there’s no magic number when it comes to the temperature at which frostbite is most likely to occur, the colder it gets the more susceptible you are. Wind chill and subzero temperatures dramatically increase risk. It is also important to stay dry. Wet fingers and toes, even when protected by gloves or socks are highly susceptible to frostbite.

Some people are also more susceptible to it than others. Like many conditions, it affects the elderly and the very young more quickly. In addition, anyone with circulation problems, such as those with diabetes and those who smoke, are more likely to get frostbitten. Alcoholics are also more susceptible because they have increased circulation to the face.

Are there any related skin conditions?

There are a couple of conditions related to frostbite that you want to look out for, as well. The first is called frost nip. It is simply a milder version of frostbite. With frost nip, only superficial layers of skin are frozen, and there is no tissue damage. Skin generally begins to turn white, hurt and itch when frost nip begins. Warming the area immediately once you notice it can prevent long-term damage.

Chilblains is another condition closely related to frostbite. This is a tissue injury to the capillary beds in the skin, resulting from exposure to cold and moisture. Chilblains results in ulcers or blisters on the affected areas, as well as redness and itching. In general, this condition happens only to those predisposed to it. Certain medical conditions, like connective tissue diseases, can predispose a person to chilblains.

How can I treat frostbite effectively?

The first symptom of frostbite is numbness in the affected area. It is important to note that this numbness usually occurs after the symptoms of frost nip, which should always be heeded. The skin may have patches of white, red and yellow. With second-degree frostbite, blisters often occur in a day or two, and will usually heal in about a month, though the area may permanently be extra sensitive to heat and cold.

With serious frostbite, blood vessels, nerves and muscles actually freeze. The skin gets a waxy feel and use of the extremity may be lost, either temporarily or permanently. Purple colored blisters, filled with blood, may appear. In severe cases of frostbite, amputation of the affected extremity is sometimes required.

Treating frostbite requires quick reaction to the symptoms of pain, itching and numbness that occur as the skin begins to freeze. In most cases, if the skin is warmed immediately, no long-term damage will occur. Running warm water over the affected extremities usually helps to repair the situation quickly. Do not warm numb extremities by using extremely high temperatures, such as near a fire or stove. Because numbness sets in quickly, it is easy to burn the skin, because you can’t feel how hot the flame might be. If you are unable to warm the affected area and relieve numbness within 30 minutes, visit a doctor.

Frostbite can be very serious, but the condition is easily prevented. Keep extremities dry and covered, using clothing that is suitable for the given outside temperature. Watch for signs of frost nip and frostbite and warm up your body immediately. There’s no reason to ruin outdoor winter work or play with the danger of frostbite.

Related Conditions:

Chilblains Redness in the Extremities