Alternative Names frozen fingers, toes, or nose, cold-induced injury
Definition Frostbite occurs when exposure to cold temperatures damages the skin or other tissues.
What are the signs and symptoms of the injury? After exposure to cold, a person may initially notice the symptoms of frostbite, or mild frostbite, which include:
a prickly sensation, or pins and needles
reddened, painful skin
In severe frostbite, a person may notice:
blisters on the skin
hard, white skin which is completely numb
blackened skin, known as gangrene, which means the tissue has died
What are the causes and risks of the injury? Anyone who is exposed to extreme cold for a significant length of time has a risk of developing frostbite. Windy weather may contribute to frostbite, too, by blowing body heat away from the body.
Frostbite occurs more often among:
those who work outside in extremely cold areas
people who are caught in the elements without proper clothing
people taking certain medications, such as beta-blockers, that decrease the blood flow to the skin
people who have blocked arteries, arteriosclerosis or other problems that affect blood circulation
wear warm, multilayered, dry clothing that fits loosely, as tight clothes tend to be less warming and can cut down circulation
avoid high, windy areas
stay warm through activity
take necessary precautions to prevent cold exposure
If a person should get wet in cold weather, it is important to dry off quickly and change clothes right away.
How is the injury recognised? Usually, a doctor diagnoses frostbite if:
a person reports exposure to extreme cold and a feeling of pins and needles followed by numbness
skin in the injured area has a change in colour or thickness
What are the treatments for the injury? If a person may have frostbite, it is important to:
bring him or her to a warmer spot
remove any wet or constricting clothing
thaw the area by putting it into warm water for at least 20 minutes, if possible. This thawing may cause the affected person pain or discomfort, but it is important.
apply gauze dressings to the frostbitten area, if available, wrapping each toe or finger separately
move the area as little as possible
try to keep the area warm so that it will not freeze again
seek medical attention
There are several things to avoid when treating frostbite. A person should not:
rub or massage the affected area
break any blisters that are present
use hot water or direct heat such as hair dryers, radiators or fires to warm the frostbitten areas
A doctor will continue treatment as needed. Pain and infection of the infected skin areas are fairly common problems from the injury. Pain may require prescription-strength analgesics in some cases. Antibiotics may be required for infection, which are usually given topically.
Surgical treatment may be needed in some cases, but is often delayed. This is because most severe cold injury is more superficial than it seems, and often causes less tissue loss than predicted. Sometimes the frostbitten areas are large or severe enough to require a skin graft or even amputation of the affected area.
What are the side effects of the treatments? All medications cause side effects, such as allergic reactions or stomach upset. Surgery carries a risk of infection, bleeding or even death.
What happens after treatment for the injury? After recovery, a person can generally return to normal activities.
Author: James Broomfield, MD Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia Last Updated: 1/10/2001 Contributors Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request
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