Frostbite

Frostbite is a freezing injury to the body's tissues caused by prolonged exposure to cold. It can cause permanent damage to the tissues. The most common places affected by frostbite are the fingers, toes, cheeks, chin, ears, and nose. Ice put directly on the skin and left too long can also lead to frostbite.

Frostbite causes the skin to turn white, grey, or blue-white. The skin may feel cold and hard. The body part often loses feeling and becomes completely numb. The skin may peel. Clear or blood-filled blisters may form. As the damage gets worse, the skin may turn black.

The treatment for frostbite is careful rewarming. In the hospital, this is done using warm water. During this process, the frostbitten part will start to throb. Pain medicine will likely be given to help make the process less painful. In severe cases, other medicines may be used, such as blood thinners (medicines that dissolve blood clots) and medicines that widen blood vessels to improve blood flow to the frostbitten area.

Rewarmed tissue will be watched to see if it recovers. If tissue dies, it may need to be removed with surgery.  

The affected body part may throb for weeks to months. Tingling or electric shock feelings may also be felt. There may be cold sensitivity, chronic numbness, chronic pain, and other symptoms that can last years.

Home care

  • Care for the injured body part as directed by your healthcare provider. Protect the affected part from cold and other injury.

  • Don't rub the injured body part to rewarm it.

  • Use over-the-counter pain medicines, if necessary, unless another medicine was prescribed.

  • As the tissue heals, watch for the signs of infection listed below.

  • Don't drink alcohol and don't smoke. These affect your blood vessels.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised. You may need to have your provider look at the affected part.

Protect the injured part from any exposure to cold for at least 6 months to a year or longer. The affected part is likely to always be more sensitive to damage from cold.

Preventing frostbite

To prevent frostbite, do the following in cold weather:

  • Dress for the weather. Wear enough layers to keep you warm. Cover exposed body parts to protect them from the cold.

  • Eat enough food and drink plenty of water.

  • Don't drink alcohol and don't smoke. They make the skin more sensitive to cold.

  • Try not to get wet. If you do get wet, remove wet clothing as soon as possible.

  • Carry emergency supplies when you are out in the elements.

  • If you use an ice pack, wrap it in a thin towel, and only use it for up to 15 minutes every 1 to 2 hours.

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have signs of infection:

  • Increasing pain, redness, or swelling

  • Pus coming from the wound

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by your healthcare provider

  • Chills

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