Frostbite Symptoms

The Facts About Frostbite - Symptoms and Causes

Many children and adults experience frostbite symptoms after spending time outdoors during the winter. As the temperatures drop below thirty-two degrees, areas of skin exposed to the cold for prolonged periods of time will freeze. This freezing causes the blood vessels in these regions to constrict, reducing blood flow and damaging the skin tissue. Most commonly, frostbite affects extremities like the nose, ears, fingers and toes.

Types of Frostbite

Like burns, there are three degrees of frostbite. The first degree of frostbite affects the surface of the skin and only affects the most outer layer of skin tissue. This level can be painful, but the frostbite symptoms typically fade after the skin is warmed. The second degree causes blisters on the skin but causes no major damage to skin tissue. The third degree of frostbite penetrates deep into the layers of the skin and causes permanent damage to skin tissue. All degrees of frostbite require medical care.

Common Frostbite Symptoms

Frostbite symptoms vary depending on the severity of the tissue damage.  One of the early warning signs is a numbing sensation that gradually worsens. This sensation is often accompanied by pain or burning that feels similar to sunburn. The affected areas of skin may appear white, red, or have a purple hue. If any of these symptoms are present, it is important to get the person indoors before permanent damage to the tissue occurs.

In severe cases of frostbite, blisters may form in addition to the warning early signs. Skin can also look dark purple or black, which indicates that permanent tissue damage has occurred.  Warming of severely frostbitten tissue can be extremely painful, and pain will continue longer than in superficial frostbite.  In cases of severe frostbite, you should not attempt warming the tissue at home, but seek medical care immediately. Other conditions such as hypothermia or dehydration often occur with severe frostbite, and a doctor can treat those as well. Care should be taken not to walk on frostbitten feet, as strain and movement occurring before the blood vessels open can cause extensive damage.

Long-term Effects of Frostbite

As the affected tissue heals, pain may subside, but frostbitten areas will remain tender and throbbing for weeks or, in severe cases, months. Once healed, areas of the body affected by frostbite may remain overly sensitive or have tingling sensations. If the tissue has died, it will have to be surgically removed by a medical professional.  In severe cases of frostbite, amputations are common to prevent infection or gangrene.

Frostbite Treatment

It is very important to seek medical care in all cases of frostbite, even if the frostbite symptoms seem mild. Only a medical professional can determine the extent of tissue damage. A doctor can also supervise the warming of affected areas so that no further damage is done. Treatment of frostbite symptoms will continue past the initial thawing of affected tissues. Aloe vera gel is commonly applied to the affected areas to minimize the discomfort of the frostbite symptoms. In severe cases, doctors may wait several months before attempting surgery or amputation of frostbitten extremities to allow dead and living tissue to separate.

Preventing Frostbite

Because frostbite can be dangerous, prevention is very important. Ears, nose, and other extremities should be covered in cold weather. To protect the fingers from frostbite, mittens are more effective than gloves because the fingers are close together and can share warmth. Make sure boots and shoes are waterproof and wear layers of socks. Winter clothing should be loose enough that it won’t restrict blood flow to the extremities. Older people and those with conditions that affect blood flow like diabetes should take extra precautions to prevent frostbite.