Frostbite occurs when tissues freeze, typically from being exposed to the cold for too long. This condition happens when you are exposed to temperatures below the freezing point of skin. Hypothermia is the condition of developing an abnormally low body temperature. Frostbite and hypothermia are both cold-related emergencies and should not be taken lightly.

Tiffany Allen, PA-C, Jersey Shore Hospital Emergency Department

Frostbite is most likely to happen in body parts farthest from the heart, also known as extremities. Extremities such as the nose, cheeks, ears, fingers, and toes are most commonly affected by frostbite.

You are more likely to develop frostbite if you:

  • spend a great deal of time outdoors
  • are under the influence of alcohol
  • go without adequate heating, food, and shelter
  • are exhausted or excessively dehydrated
  • smoke
  • have diabetes

Extreme cold, wet clothes, high winds, and poor circulation are all factors that contribute to frostbite.  Be sure to dress properly when in cold weather and protect exposed areas. In cold temperatures, wear water-resistant clothing, two pairs of socks, water proof boots, gloves, a hat, and a scarf to cover your neck and ears. If you expect to be exposed to the cold for a long period of time, don’t drink alcohol or smoke, and get adequate food and rest.

Symptoms of frostbite include:

  • Pins and needles feeling in the affected area, followed by numbness
  • Hard, pale, and cold skin that has been exposed to the cold for too long
  • Aching or throbbing of the infected area
  • Loss of feeling
  • Red and painful flesh as the area thaws

Frostbitten skin may look blue, red, white or very pale. It often looks just like a burn and may feel waxy or hard. If frostbite is experienced, do not allow the affected area touch any cold or hot objects. Never rub or massage frostbitten tissue. Rubbing frostbitten tissue will result in more severe damage.

Ice crystals that form in the tissues cause damage to the cells. It’s important not to try to rewarm or treat frostbite until absolutely certain that the tissues will not refreeze.  Do not use heating devices such as fires or stoves to treat frostbite; often victims cannot feel the frostbitten area, so it’s easy for that area to burn.

To properly treat frostbite, keep the affected area warm by wrapping in blankets and moving into a warm environment, or fill a container, sink or tub with enough warm water to cover the frostbitten body part. The water should be about 98 to 105 degrees.  Restore the water in the container as it cools.  Try to keep the water temperature as consistent as possible. This thawing process may take approximately 30 minutes.

As soon as possible, even after thawing frostbite, seek medical assistance for further evaluation.

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