What is frostbite? Frostbite is damage to a body part caused by the cold. It can be mild or severe. It is most common on the ears, nose, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes, but frostbite can occur on skin covered by gloves or other clothing. Skin affected by frostbite might look white and feel numb or hard.
Frostnip, the first stage of frostbite, does not cause permanent skin damage. You can treat very mild frostbite with first aid measures, including rewarming your skin. All other frostbite requires medical attention because it can damage skin, tissues, muscle and bones. Symptoms of frostbite can include cold, numb skin, and the skin might look white or gray and feel hard or waxy. Trouble moving the affected area or blisters with fluid or blood inside can also be symptoms of frostbite.
Frostbite occurs in several stages:
Frostnip. The first stage of frostbite is frostnip. With this mild form of frostbite, your skin pales or turns red and feels very cold. Continued exposure leads to prickling and numbness in the affected area. As your skin warms, you may feel pain and tingling. Frostnip doesn’t permanently damage the skin.
Superficial frostbite. The second stage of frostbite appears as reddened skin that turns white or pale. The skin may remain soft, but some ice crystals may form in the tissue. Your skin may begin to feel warm — a sign of serious skin involvement. If you treat frostbite with rewarming at this stage, the surface of your skin may appear mottled, blue or purple. And you may notice stinging, burning and swelling. A fluid-filled blister may appear 24 to 36 hours after rewarming the skin.
Severe (deep) frostbite. As frostbite progresses, it affects all layers of the skin, including the tissues that lie below. You may experience numbness, losing all sensation of cold, pain or discomfort in the affected area. Joints or muscles may no longer work. Large blisters form 24 to 48 hours after rewarming. Afterward, the area turns black and hard as the tissue dies.
In most cases, frostbite can be prevented by being careful not to stay out in the cold for too long. Be sure to dress warm enough when outside, It is a good idea to wear: a hat, face protection such as a ski mask, gloves, warm/water resistant shoes or boots, and layers of clothing.
It is always beneficial to know what the weather is going to be like. If it gets very cold and windy, frostbite can happen quickly — actually in a matter of minutes — so be sure you have adequate clothing and supplies on hand. It is a great idea to always have a safety kit in your vehicle, especially in the winter months. Things to include in your car safety kit would include a heavy blanket, hand warmers, first aid kit, a few bottles of water, flashlight, batteries and jumper cables.
What to do if you think you might have frostbite? If you think you or someone you are with might have frostbite, you should do the following; move the person to a warmer place as soon as possible and take off any wet clothing. By putting the affected area in warm water, you can help increase the body temperature. It is important to not use hot water.
Things to avoid doing that could possibly cause further damage would be walking if you suspect frostbite to your feet, do not rub the area or warm the area with fire or a stove because numb skin can get burned by accident. If frostbite symptoms do not get better after taking the above steps, get to a hospital as soon as possible.
You may be wondering if and how frostbite can be treated. Treatments include warming the affected area and medications to help with blood flow. Frostbite can damage blood vessels and cause blood clots in the affected body part and can lead to serious problems. Antibiotics, Tetanus shot and surgery could also be treatment methods depending on the severity of the frostbite.
To schedule an appointment with Abigail Nartker at Mercy Health – Bluffton Family Medicine, please call 419-996-5002 or visit mercy.com.