Is It Frostbite?

What frostbite symptoms and signs should you be on the lookout for?

New Zealand climber Mark Inglis, a double-amputee, shows his badly frostbitten fingers as he arrives at Auckland International airport after returning from Kathmandu May 25, 2006 in Auckland, New Zealand.
Sandra Mu/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Question

What frostbite symptoms and signs should I be on the lookout for?

You might know that frostbite happens in fingers and toes. You might know it comes from being in really cold weather. You may even know it can come from improperly icing an injury. But, do you know how to recognize frostbite?

Answer

Early stages of frostbite look just like a burn. There's swelling, blistering, and redness. As frostbite progresses, the skin turns white or yellow.

Eventually, it turns black. The best way to learn how to recognize frostbite is to see pictures of it.

Frostbite is literally caused by frozen tissues and fluids in the skin. As the tissues get colder, the damage leads to inflammation and swelling, just as is the case with a burn. Frostbite patients also complain of discomfort from the frostbite:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Loss of movement
  • Burning sensations

Because the signs and symptoms of frostbite look so similar to the signs of a burn from heat, chemicals, or the sun, it can be easy to confuse these injuries. Here are some common sense ways to tell if an injury is frostbite or something else:

  • Cold, red, swollen toes after walking in snow for several hours: probable frostbite
  • Cold, blistered fingers after a day on the ski slopes: probable frostbite
  • What looks like a burn forming after icing a twisted ankle: possibly frostbite
  • Red, swollen nose after fishing for crab during December in the Berring Sea: frostbite
  • Can't feel your feet after climbing Mt. Everest: definitely frostbite

I'm being a little silly, but it's very important to consider the cold if you develop swelling and redness in your fingers or toes. Some patients completely overlook the possibility of frostbite until it's too late.

Early frostbite -- sometimes called frostnip -- is very treatable and often doesn't result in any permanent damage.

Severe frostbite can lead to loss of skin and muscle. Just like burns, frostbite can be categorized as first, second, or third degree.

Treatment

Treating frostbite is a delicate warming procedure that really shouldn't be attempted without a medical professional unless there's no other option. As soon as frostbite is recognized, the most important thing to do is keep the area from being exposed to any more freezing temperatures. Rewarming it can be done later, but the longer the area is exposed to freezing temperatures the deeper the frostbite goes.

Source:

Sachs C, Lehnhardt M, Daigeler A, Goertz O. The Triaging and Treatment of Cold-Induced Injuries. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2015 Oct 30;112(44):741-7. doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2015.0741.

Ingram BJ, Raymond TJ. Recognition and treatment of freezing and nonfreezing cold injuries. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2013 Mar-Apr;12(2):125-30. doi: 10.1249/JSR.0b013e3182877454. Review.

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