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Frostbite

What is Frostbite?

Frostbite is damage to the skin and underlying tissues caused by exposure to cold temperatures for a prolonged period of time. Frostbite can affect any part of the body. However, the hands, feet, nose and ears are the most vulnerable.

Frostbite is distinguishable by the hard, pale, and cold skin that has been exposed to the cold for a length of time. The area affected by frostbite will lack sensitivity to touch, although there may be an aching pain. As the area affected by frostbite thaws, the flesh becomes red and very painful.

Frostbite is also called 'cold exposure to extremities'.

Who gets Frostbite?

Anyone who is exposed to freezing cold for a prolonged period of time can get frostbite. However, people who are taking beta-blockers, which decrease the flow of blood to the skin, are particularly susceptible. People with peripheral vascular disease also have an increased risk of developing frostbite.

Symptoms of Frostbite

The first symptoms of frostbite are are a "pins and needles" sensation followed by numbness. There may be an early throbbing or aching, but later on the affected part becomes insensate (feels like a "block of wood").

Frostbitten skin is hard, pale, cold, and has no feeling. When skin has thawed out, it becomes red and painful. In cases of severe frostbite, the skin may appear white and numb.

Can Frostbite be Treated?

Yes. Frostbite requires immediate medical attention.

If only the skin and underlying tissues are damaged, recovery may be complete. However, if blood vessels are affected, the damage is permanent and gangrene can follow. If gangrene occurs, treatment may require amputation of the affected part.

Do Not

  • DO NOT thaw out a frostbitten area if it cannot be kept thawed. Refreezing may make tissue damage even worse.
  • DO NOT use direct dry heat (such as a radiator, campfire, heating pad, or hair dryer) to thaw the frostbitten areas. Direct heat can burn the tissues that are already damaged.
  • DO NOT rub or massage the affected area.
  • DO NOT disturb blisters on frostbitten skin.
  • DO NOT smoke or drink alcoholic beverages during recovery as both can interfere with blood circulation.

Call immediately for emergency medical assistance if

  • There has been severe frostbite, or if normal feeling and color do not return promptly after home treatment for mild frostbite.
  • Frostbite has occurred recently and new symptoms develop, such as fever, malaise, discoloration, or drainage from the affected body part.

Complications of Frostbite

Very severe frostbite may cause blisters, gangrene, and damage to deep structures such as tendons, muscles, nerves, and bone.

A person with frostbite on the extremities may also have hypothermia. Hypothermia is lowered body temperature.

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