Frostbite is damage to skin and tissues from prolonged exposure to below-freezing temperatures. Frostbite severity is based on the depth of tissue injury. The most severe frostbite can lead to permanent damage and/or amputation.
The most common parts of the body to become frostbitten include your fingers, toes, ears, nose, chin, or cheeks.
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Exposure to below-freezing temperatures can cause the body tissue to freeze. Ice crystals form within the frozen body part. Blood cannot flow adequately through the frozen tissue. This causes the frozen tissue to be deprived of blood and oxygen. The combination of freezing and oxygen deprivation causes tissue damage or tissue death. Rewarming may also ultimately lead to tissue death.
Factors that may increase your chance of getting frostbite include:
Early stages of frostbite may cause:
Later stages of frostbite may cause:
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Diagnosis is usually based on symptoms and the findings of the physical exam.
Rapid rewarming in a warm (100°F to 110°F [37.8°C to 43.4°C]) water bath is the treatment of choice. Slow rewarming may cause more tissue damage.
If you are stranded with frostbite and unable to get medical help:
If you're able to get medical assistance, treatment may include moving you to a warm place and wrapping you in blankets. The injured body part may be soaked in warm (not hot) water.
Other treatments may include:
If you are diagnosed with frostbite, follow your doctor's instructions .
To help reduce the chance of frostbite, take these steps:
American Academy of Family Physicians
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Frostbite. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed . Updated December 15, 2011. Accessed September 11, 2013.
Frostbite. Kids Health.org website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/firstaid_safe/emergencies/frostbite.html . Updated April 2011. Accessed September 11, 2013.
Winter weather: frostbite. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://emergency.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/staysafe/frostbite.asp . Updated December 3, 2012. Accessed September 11, 2013.
Last reviewed September 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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