HomeHealth Topics A to ZThe Chilling Effects of Frostbite
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The Chilling Effects of Frostbite

By Alix Charles, MD, FAAD

During winter’s frigid temperatures, it is a good idea if we review the basics of frostbite so that you and your family can stay safe during the cold months. Frostbite occurs when the skin and subcutaneous tissue freeze. The smallest and most exposed parts of the body are most at risk: fingers, toes, nose, lips, cheeks, ears, etc.

The first stage of frostbite is called frostnip. The skin becomes warm and develops a tingly or prickly sensation. If rewarming occurs, no permanent damage will result from frostnip. In the second stage of frostbite, reddened skin becomes white or gray and may develop a waxy appearance. The skin may develop ice crystals and feel deceptively warm. Thawing the skin at this stage may reveal a blue or purple mottled discoloration. Blisters may even form in a day or two.

The third and most serious stage of frostbite affects the tissue at any and all layers. The skin becomes numb (you won't even feel cold anymore!), and the muscles and joints may become sluggish and slow to move. Rewarming at this stage will eventually lead to blisters of the skin. The skin will eventually darken and die, leaving open the risk of infection. Amputation may be necessary.

Along with frostbite comes the risk of hypothermia. Hypothermia results when the body is unable to heat itself enough to keep up with the ambient temperature. In an attempt at self-preservation, your body will shift blood circulation away from the limbs towards the vital organs. This increases the risk of severe frostbite in these limbs. Left untreated hypothermia may eventually result in loss of consciousness and death.

The risk of frostbite and hypothermia is increased in the very young and very old. Smoking, alcohol use, diabetes, circulatory disease and mental illness are also risk factors.

The most important thing you can do to prevent these from occurring is to avoid excessively cold conditions by seeking shelter in a warm place. If you absolutely must go outdoors in this weather, wear several layers of clothing and be sure to protect vulnerable body parts with hats, gloves, scarves, winter boots, etc. Be sure to check on friends, neighbors, and relatives who might be at risk for developing frostbite or hypothermia. If you find yourself experiencing the symptoms describe above seek medical attention immediately.

Topics and Subtopics: Skin Health

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