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What is Frostbite?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Frostbite is a medical condition caused by prolonged exposure to the extreme cold. It typically occurs on the extremities. The hands, fingertips, nose, feet, ears, and toes are all common frostbite areas. Frostbite is actually the result of the body’s response to protect the organs from extreme cold.

When people are in cold weather, typically 5 degrees F (-15 C) and below, the skin’s blood vessels narrow. This helps to provide greater blood flow to the rest of the body, especially the organs. However, lessened bloodflow to the skin means less oxygen. Lack of appropriate oxygenation to the skin can lead to cell death, and more than a few cells dying may be termed frostbite.

Early stages of frostbite are normally treatable. Severe frostbite can result in such significant cell death that the areas affected blacken. This can in turn lead to gangrene and infection. In severe cases, significant frostbite can mean amputating the injured areas to avoid gangrene and infection.

Frostbite is also very painful, though some may have difficulty feeling the areas affected. They may feel numb instead of painful. Some people are more prone to frostbite than others. These include people with heart or circulatory disease, smokers, and those with diabetes. Also, drinking alcohol and being outdoors in extreme cold is never recommended. Alcohol quickly lowers the body temperature, which means people may not feel the cold as much, and may contract frostbite without realizing they are in danger.

Frostbite is a medically emergent condition. If you cannot get to a hospital right away because of weather conditions, you should wrap the affected areas in loose cloths. One can also place the frostbitten areas in lukewarm water. Never use hot water as this can actually worsen the problem. Also, avoid using lotions, which might cause infection.

If a person is also exhibiting signs of hypothermia, this is a medical emergency that takes priority over frostbite. Always treat hypothermia first prior to addressing areas that might be frostbitten. Lastly be sure any dressings used are sterile to help avoid infection. As soon as possible, seek medical attention.

One can help to prevent frostbite by avoiding being out in severe weather conditions. Dressing in layers, that are not cotton, can help provide additional warmth. Wearing hats that cover the ears and scarves that can cover the nose, as well as warm jackets also help. Most suggest wearing mittens instead of gloves, since keeping the fingers together provides more warmth to the hands.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By BoniJ — On Jun 03, 2011

Recently, I've read some important frostbite info. I didn't know this before, but people can get frostbite from icing an injury. Putting ice directly on the skin for a period of time with no towel in between has resulted in frostbite. More coaches, parents and just everyone needs to know about this danger.

Another little known fact is that people, who pick up ice or frozen products for a period of time without wearing heavy enough hand protection, can and have gotten frostbite.

Everyone, use common sense and good judgment when there is a possibility of frostbite.

By Clairdelune — On Jun 01, 2011

It's amazing how the human body is set up through evolution to survive. A good example is frostbite. When threatened by extremely cold temperatures, the blood vessels in the skin narrow. Then more blood is pushed inside to help the heart and lungs to keep going.

Only problem is - when there is less blood going through the skin, it doesn't get enough oxygen and then cells die. If enough cells die, serious infection begins if frostbite treatment isn't started.

The body tries, but sometimes it is just overwhelmed.

By Acracadabra — On Jun 01, 2011

I just wanted to add that dogs and other animals should be watched carefully for symptoms of frostbite. Don't be fooled into thinking their fur can protect them. This is even more important in countries where the weather suddenly becomes unusually cold in winter.

Signs of frostbite in an animal include shivering and perhaps some confusion. Always check under their fur for skin and tissue damage, and seek medical attention if you see anything unusual.

By GoSteelers — On Jun 01, 2011

@ SleepWalker - There have been isolated cases reported of this technique being able to save tissue. However, for whatever reason, I haven't heard about any studies or concrete research that supports it.

By SleepWalker — On Jun 01, 2011

Does anyone know if any progress has been made treating frostbite with hyperbaric oxygen chambers?

By GoSteelers — On Jun 01, 2011

A lot of people's first instinct regarding frostbite is to rub or massage the skin to try and warm it up. Never do this! This kind of movement can cause a lot more damage because of the ice crystals that have formed in the skin. As the article states, passive re-warming is the best option.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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