The Ultimate Guide to Frostbite from Arnot Health

As you head off to the slopes, send the kids out to play in the snow, or simply make a wintery trek out to the grocery store, keep this in mind- it can only take a few minutes for frostbite to occur. Exposed skin can develop frostbite at 20ºF with winds at 20 mph in less than five minutes. You don’t have to be stuck in the wilderness for hours; it can happen in your own front yard.

When exposed to cold temperatures, the body begins to move blood away from the extremities, pulling it towards the core to protect vital organs and systems. This leaves fingers, toes, ears, the nose and eventually hands and feet more vulnerable to damage, known as frostbite. Frostbite occurs when ice crystals form in the cells, damaging the tissue. Frostbite can range from effecting the top layer of skin all the way to deep tissue damage.

Signs and Symptoms:
Here are signs and symptoms to look for while you’re in the elements:

  • Tingling and numbness
  • White, yellow, or grayish coloration
  • Waxy look to the skin or skin that feels abnormally hard to the touch

When rewarming or returning indoors:

  • Flushing
  • Blistering
  • Burning sensation
  • Black scab which can form several days or weeks following exposure

Next Steps:
If you believe you may have frostbite, seek medical attention as soon as possible. If medical help is not immediately available, here are a few steps you should take to minimize damage:

  • Warm the area by submerging the area in warm, not hot, water
  • Avoid dry heat such as fires and radiators, and avoid direct heat
  • If blisters form, leave them intact- they are sterile, biological dressings that form to help mend damage and avoid infection
  • Do not apply pressure or rub the affected areas; if the toes/feet are effected, avoid walking as this can increase damage

What can increase your risk for developing frostbite?
While everyone can develop frostbite under the right conditions, several circumstances can increase your risk. Some of these include:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Consumption of Alcohol or other substances
  • Damp clothing
  • Previous frostbite

Long-term Effects:
If you experience frostbite, some of the lasting effects may include:

  • Increased sensitivity to cold
  • Numbness
  • Stiffness
  • Pain
  • Gangrene
  • If the effected tissue has died, amputation of the affected area/body part may be necessary.
Skier Avoids Frost Bite

Avoiding frost bite is important whenever you’re outside in the winter.

Frostbite can be a fast-acting and serious condition. Make sure when you head out into the elements this winter you know your environment, your limits, and your risk. IF you suspect you may have frostbite, seek medical attention as soon as possible. Stay safe out there!

A few extra tips for our winter sports enthusiasts: Frostbite isn’t the only cold weather injury to be concerned with. To keep yourself safe, use the buddy system, know yourself and your limitations, stay hydrated, and be sure to warm up your muscles and tendons prior to heading out for optimal range of motion. Have fun and stay safe this winter!

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