Frostbite

Overview

Type of disease: Rare conditions

Frostbite occurs when the skin and tissue underneath the skin freezes due to prolonged exposure to the cold. Symptoms may include cold skin, a prickly feeling, numbness, skin discoloration, hard/waxy-looking skin, joint and muscle stiffness, and in severe cases skin will blister after rewarming. The most common places on the body to get frostbite are on the nose, fingers, toes, cheeks, ears, and chin. Because of the numbness, a person may not realize they have frostbite.

Frostbite happens because your body tries to keep your body temperature warm (preventing hypothermia) so that all your vital organs, like your heart, are able to do work normally. In order to do this, the body tell your arms and legs to narrow their blood vessels so more blood goes to your organs. If you remain in the cold, the body will eventually shut down the blood supply to your extremities (body parts farthest away from your heart).

Frostbite is most often due to exposure to cold temperatures, but can be caused by direct contact with frozen metals or ice. To prevent frostbite, wear clothing which will keep you warm (layers of clothing are best), make certain your hands, feet and face are well covered, and limit the time you stay out in very cold weather. Risk factors for frostbite include alcohol or drug abuse (limits awareness of being cold), being an infant or older adult, being at a high altitude, or previous cold-related injuries. Diabetes and smoking can also increase your risk.

If someone might have frostbite, get them to a warm area and out of wet clothes. Do not try to rewarm the areas where frostbite might have occurred unless there is no chance of it refreezing. Do not rub the areas. Seek medical attention right away. Medical treatment will first focus on stabilizing the body temperature and then rewarming the affected areas. Further treatment depends on the amount of damage which occurred and this may take a few days or longer to determine.

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