What Is Frostbite? - Definition, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Jayne Yenko

Jayne has taught health/nutrition and education at the college level and has a master's degree in education.

If you've ever traveled to a northern region or taken part in winter sports, you may have heard about the dangers of frostbite. Find out what the symptoms of frostbite are and what you can do if you find yourself in an icy cold situation.

Definition

Have you been skiing or snowboarding and gotten freezing cold? Maybe your hands and feet felt like they'd never get warm again? If you'd stayed outside or exposed your skin for much longer, you may have been at risk for getting frostbite.

Frostbite is damage to the skin and underlying tissues that is caused by extreme cold. When you get frostbite, ice crystals actually form within your tissues. Frostbite can affect any part of the body, but the hands, feet, nose, and ears are most generally frozen.

Frostbite is usually thought of as a hazard of arctic explorers and soldiers (WWII and the Korean War provided plenty of casualties with frostbite). However, people can also get frostbite by venturing out to participate in extreme sports, getting lost outside or spending more time than expected in the cold. Rulon Gardner, an Olympic gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling, was stranded for 17 hours after snowmobiling in the mountains of Wyoming. When found, his clothes had frozen to his body. He survived, but lost a toe to frostbite.

Symptoms

Symptoms include:

• The area may feel like it's asleep -- the pins and needles feeling

• Numbness

• Aching

• Throbbing

• Lack of feeling

• Very painful as area thaws

• Blisters

• Gangrene

• Tissue damage

Stages

There are several stages of frostbite:

• Frostnip is a mild form. Your skin turns red, and that area of your body feels very cold.

• Superficial frostbite is the second stage. That redness from frostnip turns white. The skin may still be soft, but ice crystals have started to form. Your skin may feel warm, which indicates damage to the skin.

• Severe or deep frostbite affects all the layers of the skin, including the tissues underneath. You might lose all feeling in that area. The area will turn black and hard as the tissue dies.

Treatment

Frostbite can be treated with first-aid and medical treatment, depending on how severe it is.

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