Frostbite symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and prevention
What Is Frostbite?
Frostbite is damage to the skin and other tissue after exposure to very cold conditions, usually below 0.55C or 31F.
Very cold weather makes blood vessels get smaller, affecting blood flow and the supply of oxygen.
Frostbite usually affects areas like the hands, feet, ears, nose and lips, but can affect any part of the body.
Symptoms of frostbite often start with pain from the cold, pins and needles and numbness.
Who is at risk of frostbite?
Those at a greater risk of getting frostbite include:
- Those who take part in winter sports and high altitude sports, such mountaineers and skiers
- People stranded in extreme cold weather conditions
- People with jobs that mean they are outdoors in harsh conditions for a long period of time, such as soldiers, sailors and rescue workers
- Homeless people
- The very young and very old whose bodies are less able to regulate their body temperature
- People with blood vessel damage or circulation problems, such as diabetes and Raynaud’s phenomenon
- People taking medication that constrict the blood vessels
Stages of frostbite
There are three stages of frostbite:
Frostnip: The early stage or frostnip usually causes symptoms of pins and needles, tingling, throbbing, aching or numbness. Frostnip may show as white patches of numb skin.
Intermediate: The intermediate stage of frostbite involves more tissue damage after a longer exposure to cold. The frostbitten skin may feel hard and frozen. This turns red and blisters once the person warms up again and can be painful. Afterwards this superficial frostbite may leave some swelling and itching.
Medical attention will be needed to make sure there is no lasting damage.
Advanced: The advanced stage of frostbite is called deep frostbite and requires urgent medical attention. It may involve damage deeper under the skin, to tendons, muscles, bones and nerves. The affected skin may look blotchy, white or blue. After it thaws out, blisters and black scabs may appear. If any tissue has died, it may need to be surgically removed to help prevent infection.
The longer the exposure to extreme cold, the worse the damage can become. Further damage can happen after repeated freezing, thawing and freezing.
Diagnosis of frostbite
A doctor will examine the affected areas and ask questions about how the parts of the body came to become frostbitten, and how long the exposure lasted.
The damage from frostbite may not be apparent soon after thawing and further checks done days later may be needed.
Imaging scans, such as X-rays, bone scans or an MRI may be recommended to check for damage beneath the skin.
Long-term effects of frostbite
A person who's had frostbite may recover completely. However, some people may be left with increased sensitivity to cold, numbness, loss of touch and lasting pain in the frostbitten areas,