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Frostbite: Symptoms, Causes, & First Aid Guide

Team AckoJan 17, 2024

In cold weather, some people tend to have reddish skin with burning pain, especially on their fingertips, toes, cheeks, earlobes, and nose tips. This condition is called Frostbite (FB), which causes numb white or greyish skin. This article discusses this condition in detail and the first aid steps for it.




What is Frostbite?

Frostbite is an injury that occurs when the skin is exposed to cold temperatures. The most common affected areas include fingers, ears, nose, chin, and cheeks. Mild cases of FB recover, but severe cases can cause complications.

The skin is the human body's largest organ and has several different layers. Skin is the layer that protects people and has sensations of touch that helps to perceive sensations from the environment. Blood vessels supply the skin to keep them healthy. When exposed to cold, these blood vessels constrict and become narrow resulting in blood flowing away from the extremities such as fingertips and toes. This mechanism of the body is to maintain the core body temperature. But with time, the lack of blood flow in these areas can cause damage to the skin and tissues underneath it. 

What are the stages of Frostbite?

Frostbite occurs in various stages. The three stages are as follows. 

  • Stage 1: It is a very mild stage of FB called frostnip, which does not damage the skin. In this stage, the skin turns red and feels cold. If the person continues to stay in the cold, they may feel numb and have a prickling sensation.

  • Stage 2: In this stage, the skin turns red to pale. In a few cases, it turns blue. The skin may feel warm, and the person may notice some swelling. The tissues under the skin are not affected. Immediate treatment can help prevent further complications. 

  • Stage 3: It is the most severe form of FB, affecting the skin and tissue underneath it. The skin of the affected area in this stage appears blue or mottled. Muscles near the affected area are affected and may not function properly. Blood-filled blisters can also develop in cases of deep FB. Immediate medical attention is required to provide relief from symptoms. 

What are the symptoms of Frostbite?

The symptoms of Frostbite are as follows. 

  • Numbness

  • Cold skin, and prickling sensation

  • Depending on the severity of the FB, red, white, purplish, greyish-yellow, or brown-coloured skin.

  • Muscle and joint stiffness causing clumsiness

  • Unusually waxy or firm skin

  • Blisters, in severe cases

Risk factors of Frostbite

Some people are at a high risk of developing Frostbite. Here’s a list.

  • Those who have poor blood circulation.

  • Those who are not adequately dressed in freezing weather.

  • Those with medical conditions such as dehydration, diabetes, and excessive sweating affect their ability to respond to or feel the cold.

  • Those who smoke, use illicit drugs, or drink alcohol.

  • Those with a history of Frostbite.

  • Those staying at higher altitudes where there is less oxygen.

  • Older people and infants as they have difficulty maintaining their body temperature.

Causes of Frostbite

When the skin freezes due to cold temperatures, Frostbite sets in. It can also cause direct contact with freezing metals and ice, wearing scant woollen clothes (that are required to protect against cold, wet, or windy weather) and staying in cold and wind for too long. Risk increases if the air temperature is below 5℉ with low wind speeds. In extreme weather, frostbite can occur on exposed skin in less than half an hour.

Complications of Frostbite

Frostbite, if not treated promptly, can lead to complications, which include the following. 

  • Changes in skin colour

  • Increased cold sensitivity

  • Long-term numbness in the affected area

  • Higher risk of developing Frostbite again. 

  • Joint stiffness (also called Frostbite arthritis)

  • Growth problems in children (if the bone growth plate is damaged)

  • Infection

  • Gangrene (decay and death of tissue which may result in amputation)

  • Hypothermia (decreased body temperature lower than usual)

First aid for Frostbite

First aid for frostbite includes the following.

  • Check for the signs of hypothermia. The symptoms of hypothermia include extreme shivering, confusion, drowsiness, slurred speech, and fumbling hands. If you suspect it, get emergency medical help. 

  • If there is a possibility that the affected areas can freeze again, then protect your skin from further damage. Protect your hands by wearing warm and dry gloves, and avoid wetting your hands with cold water. Protect the face, ears, and nose by covering them with gloved hands. Do not walk on frostbitten toes as much as possible because it increases the damage. Also, avoid rubbing the affected with snow or massaging it, as it can cause further damage. 

  • Get out of cold places as soon as possible. After reaching a warmer space, change your wet clothes and cover yourself with a warm blanket.

  • Use warm water or body heat to keep the person warm. 

  • You should avoid rewarming the affected areas under direct heat, such as a heat lamp, fireplace, stove, radiator, or heating pad. Since the affected areas are numb, they can quickly get burned.

  • Drink warm liquids such as coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or soup. Avoid drinking alcohol.

  • If in pain, over-the-counter painkillers can be taken. 

Recommendation: Do not use these steps as replacements for proper medical care. Frostbite should be checked thoroughly by a healthcare provider. Recognising the early signs and symptoms of FB is crucial to get prompt treatment and avoiding further damage.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Here are some frequently asked questions and their answers related to Frostbite.


Can Frostbite be treated?

Yes, most cases of FB can be treated with first aid care. Mild cases can be treated with first aid care. Severe cases require medical attention. 

How quickly can I get frostbitten?

In temperatures below 0℉, it can take 15 to 30 minutes for exposed areas to get Frostbite. 

How to prevent Frostbite?

  • Avoid or limit going out in cold and windy weather.

  • Dress in many layers of warm loose-fitting clothes.

  • Wear a headband and hat that can completely cover and protect the ears.

  • Wear socks and mittens to protect your toes and fingers.

  • Be careful about the signs of Frostbite.

Is Frostbite reversible?

Yes, frostbite is reversible. If diagnosed early, first aid care and immediate medical intervention can reverse the condition and prevent further damage. However, some people, after having Frostbite, can have permanent problems such as numbness, stiffness, and pain.

Disclaimer: The content on this page is generic and shared only for informational and explanatory purposes. Please consult a doctor before making any health-related decisions.


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