Frostbite is an injury caused by freezing of the skin and underlying tissues. First your skin becomes very cold and red, then numb, hard and pale. Frostbite is most common on the fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin. Exposed skin in cold, windy weather is most vulnerable to frostbite. But frostbite can occur on skin covered by gloves or other clothing.
Frostnip, the first stage of frostbite, doesn't cause permanent skin damage. You can treat very mild frostbite with first-aid measures, including rewarming your skin. All other frostbite requires medical attention because it can damage skin, tissues, muscle and bones. Possible complications of severe frostbite include infection and nerve damage.
Signs and symptoms of frostbite include:
- At first, cold skin and a prickling feeling
- Red, white, bluish-white or grayish-yellow skin
- Hard or waxy-looking skin
- Clumsiness due to joint and muscle stiffness
- Blistering after rewarming, in severe cases
Frostbite is most common on the fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin. Because of skin numbness, you may not realize you have frostbite until someone else points it out.
Frostbite occurs in several stages:
- Frostnip. The first stage of frostbite is frostnip. With this mild form of frostbite, your skin pales or turns red and feels very cold. Continued exposure leads to prickling and numbness in the affected area. As your skin warms, you may feel pain and tingling. Frostnip doesn't permanently damage the skin.
- Superficial frostbite. The second stage of frostbite appears as reddened skin that turns white or pale. The skin may remain soft, but some ice crystals may form in the tissue. Your skin may begin to feel warm — a sign of serious skin involvement. If you treat frostbite with rewarming at this stage, the surface of your skin may appear mottled, blue or purple. And you may notice stinging, burning and swelling. A fluid-filled blister may appear 24 to 36 hours after rewarming the skin.
- Severe (deep) frostbite. As frostbite progresses, it affects all layers of the skin, including the tissues that lie below. You may experience numbness, losing all sensation of cold, pain or discomfort in the affected area. Joints or muscles may no longer work. Large blisters form 24 to 48 hours after rewarming. Afterward, the area turns black and hard as the tissue dies.
When to see a doctor
Seek medical attention for frostbite if you experience:
- Signs and symptoms of superficial or deep frostbite — such as white or pale skin, numbness, or blisters
- Increased pain, swelling, redness or discharge in the area that was frostbitten
- New, unexplained symptoms
Get emergency medical help if you suspect hypothermia, a condition in which your body loses heat faster than it can be produced. Signs and symptoms of hypothermia include:
- Intense shivering
- Slurred speech
- Drowsiness and loss of coordination
Source: Mayo Clinic www.mayoclinic.org