Frostbite: Causes, stages, risk factors & prevention

How long does it take for frostbite to heal?

Frostbite occurs when the skin and sometimes the tissue beneath the skin freezes due to prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. Depending on how long and how frozen the tissue is, frostbite can result in severe, sometimes permanent, damage. Frostbite damages body tissues in much the same way that burns do. However, frostbite injuries and burn injuries can look very similar.

Frostbite is most common on parts of your body such as chin, ears, nose, hands, toes and feet. It can either be superficial or deep. Superficial frostbites occur on the surface and are comparatively less severe than deep frostbites.

Stages of frostbite

There are several stages of frostbite.

  • Frostnip

This is the first stage of frostbite, where your skin turns pale or red and very cold. Prolonged exposure to low temperatures can cause pain and a tingling sensation with no permanent damage.

  • Superficial Frostbite

You know your frostbite is proceeding to the second stage if it first appears as reddened skin that turns pale or white. Although your skin may remain soft, you will start noticing the formation of ice crystals in your tissues.

  • Severe (Deep) Frostbite

As the frostbite progresses, it affects all your skin layers, including the deep tissues. You will experience pain, numbness, and sensations of cold.

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Causes of frostbite

The body responds to cold temperatures by narrowing the blood vessels. Due to this, blood flow to the extremities slows down thereby increasing the flow to vital organs. As the blood is redirected away from the extremities, these parts of the body get colder. The fluid in the tissue however can freeze into ice crystals.

The ice crystals can cause severe cell and also tissue damage in the affected area. The low blood flow also deprives the tissues of oxygen. However, if blood flow can’t be restored, the tissue will eventually die.

People at risk for frostbite

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Certain groups of people are at greater risk of getting frostbites. These occur in situations such as:

  • people who take part in winter and high-altitude sports, such as mountaineers and skiers
  • anyone stranded in extreme cold weather conditions
  • people who works outdoors in harsh conditions for long periods of time, such as soldiers, sailors and rescue workers
  • homeless people
  • the very young and very old, because their bodies are less able to regulate body temperature
  • people with conditions that cause blood vessel damage or circulation problems, such as diabetes
  • anyone taking medication that constricts the blood vessels such as beta-blockers. Smoking can also constrict the blood vessels
  • those people who have taken drugs or drunk alcohol. Taking drugs or alcohol can lead to risky behaviour, not responding normally to cold, or falling asleep outside in cold weather.

Signs & symptoms of frostbite

If you are suffering from superficial frostbite, you may experience:

  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Itching
  • Cold sensations in the affected area
  • Also, your skin may appear white or frozen.

Deep frostbites, on the other end, may result in:

  • An initial decrease in sensation that may be completely lost over time
  • Swelling
  • Blood-filled blistering
  • Skin turning yellow or white with a waxy appearance
  • Significant pain after rewarming the area
  • Skin looking dead or turning black

First aid

First aid for frostbites includes:

  • Seek shelter and reduce further exposure to the cold and wind.
  • Remove any wet or restrictive clothing and replace with dry clothing wherever possible.
  • Wrap the person in blankets and warm the person’s entire body.
  • Do not rub the affected area.
  • Do not expose the person to direct radiant heat such as a fire.
  • Take the pressure off the affected area to prevent further damage; for example, don’t allow the person to walk on frostbitten feet.
  • Don’t allow the person to smoke cigarettes, since nicotine constricts the blood vessels.
  • Do not attempt to thaw affected part if there is a chance of it being refrozen.
  • Do not break blisters.
  • Call the doctor immediately or take the victim to a hospital emergency room.

Preventing frostbite

Frostbites in children

Exposure to cold weather, even for relatively brief periods of time, can be dangerous if you are not adequately prepared. Shivering and feeling cold or numb are warning signs that the body is losing too much heat.

Children are at greater risk as they have a smaller body mass. Extra care must be taken to ensure that their clothes are as dry and as many layered as possible.

A water proof hat is essential as children lose heat through their heads and scalp much quicker than adults. Ears are at great risk from frostbite.

Simple ways to prevent frostbite include:

  • Avoid prolonged exposure to cold weather.
  • Several layers of clothing hold body heat more efficiently than just one bulky layer.
  • A weatherproof outer layer keeps the body dry.
  • Use gloves, scarves and socks. Carry spares in case the ones you are wearing get wet.
  • Wear insulated boots.
  • Warm headgear, since considerable body heat is lost through the scalp.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Eat regularly.
  • Keep your eye on the exact temperature by taking a thermometer with you.
  • Change out of wet clothes straight away.
  • Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine.
  • Check your skin frequently for any signs of frostbite.

About felclinic 593 Articles
Felix Ntifo is a Registered General Nurse who has so much passion to improve health care delivery. He founded FelClinic with the hope of making health information accessible to everyone who may not come in contact with him personally. "At we are very passionate about health and well-being of everyone. Our team is made up of professional doctors, nurses, midwives and lab technicians."

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