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Frostbite Overview: Symptoms, Risks and Treatment

Updated on October 20, 2017

Frost Bite

Frostbitten Hands
Frostbitten Hands | Source

What is Frostbite

As the winter months and cold temperatures approach the fear of conditions such as frostbite increase. Frostbite can be as serious as loosing limbs if one is not careful. Therefore everyone living in colder climates must take special precautions in order to prevent this from happening and keep their skin safe.

Frostbite occurs when the exposed skin is exposed to extremely cold temperatures for a prolonged period of time. Most commonly occurring in the nose, ears, fingers or toes. However it can affect and entire foot, hand or even both. When the skin is exposed to freezing temperatures for a prolonged period of time tiny ice crystals form within the bodies cells. And blood vessels will constrict reducing the amount of blood flow and the amount of oxygen to that area of the body. This ultimately leads to cell death.

Risks For Frostbite

  • Skin exposed to cold temperature.(the homeless, people not dressing properly for the weather)
  • Jobs that require you to be outside in cold weather for prolonged periods of time.
  • People with an altered mental status. (drugs, alcohol, dementia, mental illnesses)
  • Smoking.
  • Medications that impair circulation.
  • Previous injury due to cold.
  • Those with peripheral vascular diseases.
  • Those with diabetes.

Important: Ensure that children are properly dressed before going outdoors in cold temperatures.

Pvt. Benjamin Franklin lost all four limbs due to frost bite.
Pvt. Benjamin Franklin lost all four limbs due to frost bite. | Source

Symptoms of Frostbite

  • Burning
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Red, white, purple, yellow or blackened skin
  • Hard or waxy looking skin
  • Pain upon rewarming
  • Joint/muscle stiffness
  • Blistering (severe)
  • Throbbing (may last for days)

Seek medical attention if frostbite is suspected. The physician will need to observe and feel the affected area in order to diagnose the degree of frostbite experienced.

Treatment of Frostbite

  • Seek warmth as soon as possible.
  • Gradually warm the affected area.
  • Keep the affected area elevated.
  • Remove anything that may be constricting the blood flow such as jewelry, clothing or watches.
  • Increase fluid intake. Perferrably warm.
  • Do not rub the affected area.

If there is a chance you may refreeze the area do not unthaw it first. Freezing, thawing, and then refreezing may cause more damage.

Medical Treatments

  • Debridement (the removal of dead tissue).
  • Hydrotherapy
  • Thrombolytics in serious cases. These medications will cause bleeding and lower the chances of amputation.
  • Surgery. Amputation may be required to get rid of any dead tissue.
  • Leaving the area. At times it may be more beneficial to leave the area alone. Eventually it will dry up (basically mummify) and fall off. Leaving the healthy tissue intact.

Antibiotics may be required if there is a chance of infection.

It is very important to prevent frostbite from occurring at all costs. As complications such as the loss of a limb, serious infection, permanent nerve damage, chances of it occurring again increases, and gangrene.

Frostbite is preventable and the necessary precautions must be taken.


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