Recognizing Frostbite and What To Do

Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by significant exposure to cold. Frostbite starts with pain, typically sharp or burning pain, and redness as the body reacts to the cold. Then, there is a loss of feeling and blood flow in affected area decreases. Body parts can eventually dehydrate and freeze. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes.

Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with poor circulation, existing neurological disease and among people who are not dressed properly for cold temperatures. Although alcohol can make you feel warm, it produces changes in circulation and sensation that greatly increases risk for frostbite.

Recognizing Frostbite
"At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin area, consider that frostbite is starting. Get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin," said Dr. Jerome Andres, Ministry Medical Group in Woodruff. Remember, a victim can be unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because the tissues get numb."

Any of the following signs may indicate frostbite:

  • a white or grayish-yellow skin area
  • skin that feels unusually firm or waxy
  • numbness
  • coldness of the affected area

What to Do
"If you detect symptoms of frostbite, warm and protect the area. Because frostbite and hypothermia both result from exposure, consider the whole person, not just the part," said Dr. Andres. "Hypothermia is a more serious, sometimes deadly medical condition and requires emergency medical assistance, but any victim of frostbite or hyperthermia should consider seeking medical care urgently because prompt, proper rewarming and care is essential."

If (1) there is frostbite but no sign of hypothermia and (2) immediate medical care is not available, proceed as follows:

  • Get into a warm room as soon as possible.
  • Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes - this increases the damage.
  • Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it at all. This can cause more damage. 
  • Warm the affected area using body heat. For example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers. If possible, lightly bundle the frostbit area with normal body parts in a blanket, clothing or other cover to retain available body heat.
  • Don't use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can be easily burned.

"These procedures are not substitutes for proper medical care. Hypothermia is a medical emergency and frostbite should be evaluated by a health care provider," said Dr. Andres. "It is a good idea to take a first aid and emergency resuscitation (CPR) course to prepare for cold-weather health problems. Knowing what to do is an important part of protecting your health and the health of others."

Dr. Andres concludes, "Taking preventive action is your best defense against having to deal with extreme cold-weather conditions. By preparing yourself, your home and car in advance for winter emergencies, and by observing safety precautions during times of extremely cold weather, you can reduce the risk of weather-related health problems."

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