Use These Pictures to Identify Frostbite

A Gallery of Frostbite Pictures from Minor to Severe

Frostbite damages body tissues in much the same way that burns do. In fact, frostbite injuries and burn injuries can look very similar, and frostbite can be categorized in the same way.

Frostbite can happen in many different ways, which is readily apparent from the different pictures. Whether climbing Mount Everest or icing an injury just a little too long, frostbite is an injury likely to leave its mark forever.

You can't properly treat frostbite unless you recognize it. Hopefully, these pictures will give you an idea how frostbite might look.

Frostbitten Face

frostbite on cheeks
Hunting Trip Leads to Frostbite on Cheeks Frostbitten face from riding a snowmobile. Japeofapes

"It was the 3rd week of January and I decided to go hunting," VeryWell reader Japeofapes writes. "We were looking for caribou and my snowmobile windshield is very low profile."

Japeofapes says he and his partner stopped for tea. When his partner saw Japeofape's face, he said, "Oww man! Your face is frostbitten!"

I definitely agree with "Owww man!" That looks like it hurts.

Japeofapes says he "thawed it with snow so I would not feel so much pain later on and it worked." Not so sure I'm in love with "thawing" frostbite with snow. Putting snow on the frostbitten skin and muscle tissue is likely to continue the freezing process. Here's how to properly treat frostbite.

Japeofapes doesn't say how well his face did or did not heal. He does say his fingers also suffered from frostbite. He says he still feels numb and stinging in his fingers and blames that on not "thawing" them with snow.

Big Toe Frostbite Blister

frostbitten toe
Walking 9 Miles in the Freezing Cold Wearing Only Sandals Causes Nasty Blister Frostbite on toe down to the bone. Timothy J. Kosier

Timothy J. Kosier says he got stuck near his home outside Westcliffe, Colorado, and had to walk 9 miles wearing socks, sandals, light gloves and a coat. He says he didn't notice the loss of sensation and swelling in his fingers and toes until the next day—especially the blister on his big toe.

"I was surprised 'cause it was in the upper 20s," Timothy says in his frostbite picture submission, "not very cold at all. Live and learn."

To a California boy like me, temperatures in the upper 20s sound pretty darn cold. I guess it's all relative. Regardless whether you think that's cold or not, it's below freezing and Timothy walked 9 miles that way without adequate protection. It was a hard lesson to learn, but he did.

"Never fail to be prepared," Timothy warns, "no need for it to be 30 below to get frostbite. I've weathered 35 below, no problem—I was prepared then."

White Frostbite on Fingertips

Frostbitten Fingers
White, Waxy Skin is a Danger Sign of Frostbite. (c) Dan Darley

Frostbite is a cold injury to the skin. Literally, frostbite is composed of frozen tissues and fluids. Frostbite damages skin similar to the way a burn works. Frostbite symptoms can be very similar to burns; frostbite causes discoloration, swelling and tissue death (necrosis).

Most textbooks describe frostbite as white and waxy. It's not always like that, but this image shows how frostbite can look. Dan Darley tells me this frostbite showed up after a day in the backcountry. His flickr photo page says he was in Yellowknife, NT, Canada preparing for a trip to the North Pole. In an email, Dan relates how he found the frostbite and how he kept it from getting worse:

"I got the damage on a backcountry trip - it happened in the morning and as we were on the move I didn't take my gloves off until the evening - so didn't do anything specific to warm the fingers. We were out for another couple days before returning to our motel but I managed to keep them warmish whilst out so they didn't get worse, although I was very worried."

One of the most important things Dan did was not to thaw the frostbite while he was still in the wilderness. It's very important not to treat frostbite until there's absolutely no chance it could refreeze. The more the tissues freeze, thaw and freeze again, the more severe the damage gets each time.

Dan's frostbite looked better in a month without treatment, but he says it took several more weeks to feel completely healed.

Frostbite After Two Weeks

Frostbitten Fingers After 2 Weeks
White, Waxy Skin Turns Black as the Top Layer Comes Off. (c) Dan Darley

Dan Darley shares this picture of his frostbitten fingers 2 weeks after they were frozen. His flickr photo page says he was in Yellowknife, NT, Canada preparing for a trip to the North Pole.

Frostbite is a cold injury to the skin. Literally, frostbite is composed of frozen tissues and fluids. Frostbite damages skin similar to the way a burn works. Frostbite symptoms can be very similar to burns; frostbite causes discoloration, swelling and tissue death (necrosis).

This frostbite started out looking waxy and white, which is the classic description of frostbite in many textbooks. After 2 weeks, the injury turned black and the skin was peeling, similar to the way a healing burn begins to peel.

Frostbite After Four Weeks

Frostbitten Fingers After 4 Weeks
New Raw Skin Replaces the Frostbitten Tissue. (c) Dan Darley

Dan Darley shares this picture of his frostbitten fingers taken 4 weeks after they were frozen. His flickr photo page says he was in Yellowknife, NT, Canada preparing for a trip to the North Pole.

This frostbite started out looking waxy and white, which is the classic description of frostbite in many textbooks. After 2 weeks, the injury turned black and the skin was peeling, similar to the way a healing burn begins to peel.

After the damaged skin tissue falls off, new, raw skin replaces it. In this case, Dan says the frostbitten fingers looked better in a month, but it took several more weeks for the injury to feel completely healed.

Frostbite is a cold injury to the skin. Frostbite damages skin similar to the way a burn works. Frostbite symptoms can be very similar to burns; frostbite causes discoloration, swelling and tissue death (necrosis).

Frostbite on Toes

Frostbitten toes
Areas Furthest from the Heart Most Likely to Get Frostbite Frostbitten toes of a Chinese herdsman after a severe blizzard in northwest China in 2006. Temperatures during the storm were as low as 45 degrees below zero. Photo by China Photos/Getty Images

The body is like a car motor. We burn fuel (sugar) mixed with oxygen to create energy. And just like a motor—we get hot.

Your body is hotter deep in its core, near the heart. One of the benefits of your heart pushing blood around is to distribute that heat throughout your whole body.

As you might imagine, the further blood gets from the heart the cooler it gets. That's why your hands, toes and nose always seem to get cold first—they're not as hot-blooded as the rest of you.

When the environment gets really cold, like a blizzard in northwest China in 2006 that dropped to 45 degrees below zero, it's those areas far from the heart that are the hardest hit. Frostbite is much more common where blood doesn't flow as fast or as hot.

With the proper precautions, you can avoid hypothermia and frostbite. Treating frostbite is a delicate process and should only be attempted outside a hospital if no other option is available.

Black Frostbite on Fingertips

Frostbitten fingertips
Permanent Damage from Severe Frostbite New Zealand climber and double-amputee Mark Inglis suffered frostbite on his fingertips while climbing Mount Everest in 2006. Photo by Sandra Mu/Getty Images

In severe cases of frostbite, the skin and deeper tissues may become gangrenous and turn dark green or black as they die. Feeling, movement and blood flow are all lost. If the tissue is not surgically removed, the gangrene can spread and develop into a severe infection.

Frostbite can happen in just a few minutes in the worst conditions, such as the subzero temperatures of Mount Everest. In such a remote location there is almost no possibility of thawing the frostbitten tissue before permanent damage is done.

Since frostbite is worse in areas where blood flow is restricted—like the fingertips—there isn't a lot of warm blood to stop the frostbitten tissue from cooling the tissue next to it. That's how frostbite spreads. Getting the tissues out of the cold environment is the only way to stop the spreading frostbite.

Frostbite from an Ice Pack

Frostbite on ankle
Take Care When Icing an Injury Not to Cause Frostbite Frostbite on an ankle after treating with an ice pack improperly applied directly on the skin. (c) Melanie Martinez

Applying ice (part of first aid RICE treatment) can ease inflammation after someone has a sprain or bad bruising, but applying ice incorrectly can lead to frostbite.

It's important not to put the ice directly on the skin nor leave the ice on for too long. There are several documented cases of frostbite from ice packs.

Severe Frostbite on Fingers

Severe Frostbite
Fresh Blisters Show Early Severe Frostbite. (c) Winky from flickr

Early frostbite can be nearly indistinguishable from a burn. The damage to skin causes almost identical swelling and blisters at first. Indeed, as it heals, frostbite can cause the skin to crack and peel just like a burn does.

Note the redness and swelling on this woman's fingers. Her knuckles show the most damage, which is because joints have less muscle and more bone tissue. (Blood flowing through muscle helps it stay warm.) Fingers already don't have as much blood flow because they're so far from the heart, but around the joints, blood flow is even less robust.

Although the blisters on the knuckles are obvious, it's possible to see how swollen her fingers are by looking at her ring. The ring is very tight, indicating the finger is much larger than usual.

This case of frostbite was severe. This woman reportedly lost parts of some of her fingers from this injury. It's a good example of the early look of severe frostbite.

Source:

Handford C, Thomas O, Imray CHE. Frostbite. Emerg Med Clin North Am. 2017 May;35(2):281-299. doi: 10.1016/j.emc.2016.12.006. Review.

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