Healthy Living

Frostbite symptoms

Frostbite: Symptoms, Treatment & Stages

What is Frostbite?

Frostbite is basically an injury that is caused due to freezing of the skin as well as its underlying tissues. First of all, the skin starts to turn cold and becomes red, it then starts to get numb and become hard as well as pale. Frostbites commonly occur on the cheeks, toes, ears, nose, chin and fingers. The skin that gets exposed to cold and windy weather for a long time is generally known to be prone to frostbites, but frostbite could also occur on skin which has been covered with gloves or with any other clothing.

The initial stage of frostbite is known to be frostnip and this stage does not lead to any kind of permanent skin damage. One can treat even mild cases of frostbite by rewarming the skin and using a first aid kit. All the other forms of frostbite would need immediate medical attention since it has the tendency to cause damage to the skin, muscles, bones as well as tissues. In case a frostbite is not treated in a timely manner, then the possible complications it can lead to are occurrence of infection as well as damage to the nerves.

Symptoms of Frostbite

An individual suffering from frostbite would experience the below mentioned symptoms:

  • The initial symptoms would be that of the skin turning cold along with a prickling sensation.
  • Numbness in that region
  • Due to the stiffness in the muscles as well as the joint, there would be issues of clumsiness.
  • The colour of the skin would change to reddish, white, grayish yellow or bluish white.
  • The skin may look very hard or waxy.
  • After rewarming, there would be signs of blistering if the frostbite turns out to be severe.

Frostbite condition is seen as a common issue on the nose, chin, fingers, cheeks, toes and ears. Due to the numbness in the skin, the individual may not even realise that they have frostbite until someone else points it out to them.

Stages of Frostbite

The medical condition of frostbite is known to occur in multiple stages which includes the below:

  1. Frostnip: This is termed as the initial stage of frostbite. This is mostly in mild form and the skin starts to turn pale or it can also look reddish in colour. The individual would also start to feel very cold in that region. If the exposure is consistent, then the skin can start to show signs of prickling as well as numbness in the affected region. As the skin starts to warm, the individual may start to feel sensation of pain as well as a tingling sensation. Since this is the initial stage of frostbite, this does not mostly damage the skin permanently.
  2. Superficial frostbite: The second stage of frostbite is known as the superficial frostbite. It tends to appear as reddish skin that would start to turn white or become pale. The individual's skin may remain soft in this stage, but there are certain ice crystals which can start to form in the tissue. The individual may start to feel warm in that region of the skin which would turn out to be a serious sign of skin involvement.In case if the individual thinks of treating this frostbite symptom by carrying out rewarming at this particular stage, then it would be possible that the surface of the skin would start to appear as mottled, purplish or bluish in colour. The individual may also start to notice signs of swelling, burning or stinging. Also within a period of 24 to 36 hours, the individual may notice a fluid filled blister at the region where rewarming was applied.
  3. Severe case of frostbite or deep frostbite: As the condition of frostbite progresses, it would start to affect all the layers of the skin which can also include the tissues that lie beneath. The individual may also start to experience numbness wherein they may lose out on all of the sensation of cold, discomfort or even pain in the affected region. In severe cases, the individual’s joints as well as muscles would not work any longer. After rewarming of the region, there are large blisters which start to form within a period of 24 hours to 36 hours, after which the area would start to turn black as well as hard since the tissues start to die.

When to get medical attention

Below are the cases when the individual would need to seek immediate medical attention:

  • When the individual starts to feel feverish.
  • There are symptoms related to the superficial or the deep frostbite which can include skin turning pale and white, numbness and formation of blisters.
  • There are new symptoms which cannot be explained.
  • There is increase in pain and swelling along with skin turning red or a kind of discharge in the region of frostbite.

The moment an individual suspects a case of hypothermia, they should inform the doctors. Hypothermia is basically a condition wherein the body starts to lose out on the heat much faster than it can produce it. Few of the symptoms of hypothermia are, speech being slurred, intense case of shivering, lack of coordination and feeling drowsy.

Long term Effects of Frostbite

Those individuals who have a history of severe case of frostbite most often report even further long term effects of this condition:

  • There is increase in sensitivity towards cold.
  • The individual may also complain of persistent pain occurring in the affected region of the body.
  • In the affected parts, there would be numbness and it would mostly occur in the fingers.
  • There is reduction in the sense of touch in the body part which has been affected.

Risk factors of Frostbite

Any individual can develop the case of a weather related injury:

  • The young as well as the elderly are known to be prone to these kinds of injuries mostly due to vascular compromise or the inability of the body in redistributing the body heat effectively. Also in addition, individuals who tend to work mostly outdoors, the ones who are homeless and those who are engaged in outdoor activities are very likely to develop this condition and cold weather related injuries because of the time of exposure to the cold condition.
  • Use of alcohol as well as drugs are also known to make the individual prone to develop certain cold related injuries since these individuals are known to have an impaired sense of judgement and also they may not sense that they are in danger.
  • Those patients who are suffering from certain medical conditions which can include psychiatric illness, diabetes, smoking, circulatory issues or dehydration are also known to develop injuries due to cold weather. This can happen very quickly as compared to other individuals.
  • Those individuals who are not dressed appropriately to battle the cold weather are also susceptible to these conditions.


Most of the frostbite cases can be diagnosed with a physical examination. At the same time, the individual would need to inform the doctor or provide them a description of when, how and where did the frostbite occur to them. In case the frostbite turns out to be at the severe stage, then the doctor may carry out X-rays or scans of the bones for assessing the damage caused to the muscles as well as the bones.

Treatment of Frostbite

The moment you identify that you are suffering from frostbite, then carry out the below mentioned first aid treatment options:

  • Immediately seek shelter to get saved from cold. Avoid exposing your body too long to cold weather.
  • Try to warm your hands by tucking them below the arms or you can also rub them lightly.
  • If it is possible, try to stay indoors as well as remove any kind of jewellery or clothing which has turned wet.
  • Once you are indoors, you can place your hands as well as your feet in warm water and at the same time, ensure to also cover the rest of the body with a blanket so that the entire body stays warm.
  • Avoid any kind of heat sources such as fire, heating pads or lamps since these can lead to frostbitten skin.
  • For those individuals who think they are dehydrated, they should drink warm drinks.
  • Reach out to your doctor immediately.

Most of the frostbite cases can be treated by gently warming the affected region in water. The doctor can also help to sterilise the skin which has been affected and then wrap it with a dressing. When the skin is mostly raw due to frostbite, the individual is known to be prone to getting any kind of infection. If the skin becomes infected, then the doctor may advise certain antibiotics to the individual.

In those cases, which turn out to be extreme, the nerves, bones as well as the muscles would also experience damaging signs and in such cases, the doctor may recommend to go in for amputation surgery. The doctor can also look to repair the tissues with the help of drugs which are known as thrombolytics, which would be delivered to the individual by the intravenous method. But the use of these drugs are known to cause severe form of bleeding, hence they are mostly taken as a last resort for avoiding the case of amputation.

Complications of Frostbite

There is a natural response of the body when it gets exposed to cold and this is to direct the blood to the heart as well as the lungs. When these organs are kept warm, they mostly help in preventing the case of hypothermia. As mentioned earlier, hypothermia is known to mostly occur when the body itself is not able to produce enough heat so that it can protect itself from the exposure of cold.

When the individual is suffering from hypothermia as well as frostbite, then they should first get themselves treated for hypothermia before treating frostbite. While the case of frostbite is very much painful and would mostly result in damage which is permanent to few of the exposed regions, but hypothermia is considered to be a much more serious cold weather threat.

When there is frostbite present on the arms as well as legs, then they can potentially indicate signs of hypothermia since it would take a while for the frostbite to spread that far and frostbite as we all are aware occurs mostly in the ears, toes, chin, nose and cheeks.

Prevention of Frostbite

One of the best ways to prevent the case of frostbite is to dress appropriately when the weather is very cold. It is also important to be aware of the weather forecasts before you plan to step out of the house. Do not plan to spend any extended amount of time outdoors when the weather outside is cold or when it is below freezing point. It is advisable to avoid going out when the temperatures outside are falling or is below zero degrees.

For those individuals who plan to go outside in cold freezing weather, they should ensure to wear multiple layers of clothing. Also ensure that none of the skin gets exposed to cold weather. The clothing which you wear should be waterproof as well.

At certain times, one may not be able to anticipate the case of frostbite. Hence for this reason, it is good to always have an emergency kit handy that includes hats, gloves, non-perishable snacks as well as blankets. It is always good to be prepared beforehand and stay protected from any kind of untoward incident. There would also be a need for a pair of warm boots and at such times, increase the intake of warm fluids as well as calories to keep the body warm all the while.

Key Takeaways

  • Frostbite is an injury caused due to skin freezing.
  • Initially the skin would turn cold, red and then it would start to numb and become hard.
  • Frostnip is the initial stage of frostbite and it is mostly mild and does not cause major damage.