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Hands, feet, noses, and ears are most likely to be affected by frostbite

Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]

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Frostbite (congelatio in medical terminology) is the medical condition whereby damage is caused to skin and other tissues due to extreme cold. At or below 0º C (32ºF), blood vessels close to the skin start to narrow (constrict). This helps to preserve core body temperature. In extreme cold or when the body is exposed to cold for long periods, this protective strategy can reduce blood flow in some areas of the body to dangerously low levels. The areas where this occurs will freeze over. The combination of cold temperature and poor blood flow can cause severe tissue injury by freezing the tissue. Frostbite is most likely to happen in body parts farthest from the heart, and those with a lot of surface area exposed to cold. The initial stages of frostbite are sometimes called "frostnip". Mountains or high altitudes with snow are most dangerous to cause frostbite. If frostbite is not treated immediately then the damage and the frostbite become permanent. Nerve damage will occur because oxygen doesn't get to the areas. Frostbitten areas will turn discolored, purplish at first, and soon turn black. After a while nerve damage becomes so great that feeling is lost in the frostbitten areas. Blisters will also occur. If feeling is lost in the damaged area, checking it for cuts and breaks in the skin is vital. Infected open skin can lead to gangrene and amputation may be needed.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for frostbite include using beta-blockers and having conditions such as diabetes and peripheral neuropathy.

Frostbitten hands


History and Symptoms

Generally, frostbite is accompanied by discoloration of the skin, along with burning and/or tingling sensations, partial or complete numbness, and possibly intense pain. If the affected areas and blood vessels have been severely damaged, gangrene may follow, and amputation may eventually be required. If left untreated, frostbitten skin gradually darkens and blisters after a few hours. Skin destroyed by frostbite is completely black, and looks loose, flayed and flexible. The black skin looks burnt. Frostbitten areas are cold to the touch.


Medical Therapy

To treat frostbite, move the victim to a warm location and seek medical help. Soak frostbitten areas in warm (not hot) water, or, if in wilderness, warm by contact with the skin of a non-frostbitten person. Continue until the victim has regained sensation and movement in the afflicted region; this often follows great pain as the nerves thaw. Never rub, slap or shake the stricken region as ice crystals in the frostbitten skin will damage surrounding tissue. Follow the treatment with a period of constant warmth: refreezing following thawing worsens the damage.

Primary Prevention

Factors that contribute to frostbite include extreme cold, wet clothes, wind chill, and poor circulation. This can be caused by tight clothing or boots, cramped positions, fatigue, certain medications, smoking, alcohol use, or diseases that affect the blood vessels, such as diabetes. Moreover employees working in chemical laboratories should take precautions to wear gloves and other safety equipment as liquid nitrogen and other cryogenic liquids can cause frostbite even with brief exposure. If caught in a severe snowstorm, one should find shelter early or increase physical activity to maintain body warmth. People susceptible to frostbite should wear woolen socks/gloves/caps in extreme cold. For frostbite in the feet, keeping feet in warm saline water will provide relief. Diabetes can also sometimes lead to frostbite, so diabetics should take precautions as to avoid trips to ice-cold places.[1]


  1. "Frostbite: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2013-02-08.

Related Chapters

cs:Omrzliny de:Erfrierung eo:Frostiĝo he:כוויית קור it:Congelamento lt:Nušalimas nl:Bevriezing (medisch) fi:Paleltuma sv:Köldskada