How to recognize Frostbite?

Frostbite is a skin injury that occurs when the temperature reaches one digit Fahrenheit or below. It leads to the freezing of the skin cells and underlying tissues. Frostbite starts with skin redness exposed to cold weather and is followed by numbness, discoloration, and skin blisters. In severe cases, the skin turns black and hard. If left untreated, it can permanently damage your skin, nails, and even bones. Tissue loss and autoamputation are the major consequences of frostbite. Lets dicuss in detail how to recognize different stages of frostbite and what are its causes.

Causes of Frostbite

The most common cause of frostbite is exposure to cold weather or cold water. It can also happen in windy weather and high altitude or when you are in direct contact with ice or a freezing metal.

Frostbite is so common in cold temperatures that you can still become a victim of frostbite even if you wear gloves and proper clothing. Sometimes the victim may not realize the frostbite until someone else pinpoints it.

Most affected body parts

Areas usually affected include cheeks, ears, nose, fingers, and toes. Being farther away from your core, these are the first areas affected by decreased blood flow in response to cold.

Mechanism of frostbite

The underlying mechanism of frostbite starts with the low temperatures that cause blood vessels to constrict in exposed areas of the body, like cheeks, ears, nose, fingers, and toes. Long-term exposure of these body parts to freezing low temperatures forms ice crystals in the tissues. As a result of crystal formation, blood clots form, depriving the cells of oxygen and causing tissue damage to varying degrees.

Situations that lead to frostbite

  • Wearing clothes that are not relevant to the weather like wearing too tight clothes in winter.
  • Staying out in windy, cold weather for too long, like in single-digit Fahrenheit temperatures, you may get frostbite in less than 30 minutes.
  • The inadequate shelter may lead to frostbite, and homeless individuals are at higher risk.

How soon does frostbite happen?

It depends on how cold and windy it is outside. It can happen faster than you may think. In frigid weather, frostbite can happen in just 5 minutes.

Recognition of different stages of frostbite

Many of us don’t know we have frostbite because we can’t feel the area anymore as it worsens. That’s why you need to look for changes in skin color and texture to recognize the stage of frostbite. The recognition of frostbite severity is the most important step in its treatment.

Recognize if you have early-stage frostbite 

Early signs of frostbite can easily be reversed by simple rewarming, so it’s essential to recognize the early signs of frostbite to avoid permanent modifications.

White or greyish yellow skin color

Skin color is the best indicator of frostbite. You can easily guess the stage of frostbite by monitoring the skin color. 

If you notice redness in fingers or other body extremities, it’s a sign of oncoming frostbite. If the skin is yellow or white, it’s the early stage of frostbite. Better is to seek a warm place to avoid further freezing.

Skin itching

Do not ignore a continual itching or burning sensation if you are out in cold weather. You may also feel like pins or needles. It’s a sign of oncoming frostbite.

Skin feels cold

In the early stages of frostbite, you will notice that your skin feels cold to the touch but still feels soft.


It refers to a whitening and initial numbing of the skin. Although not dangerous, it does indicate that a person’s skin and tissues are starting to be affected by the weather. You should get inside immediately and treat the area with warm water. Later you may get small red swellings on your skin.

Recognize if you have a superficial stage of frostbite

Greyish white colored skin

If you notice greyish-white and shiny skin, it’s still a superficial stage of frostbite but advanced compared to the early stage.

Skin feels warm

When you touch your skin, it will no longer be cold. This is a very serious sign that the victim is beginning to suffer from a dangerous case of frostbite. This is because your skin might feel warm, but the water in your skin is slowly freezing into ice crystals. 

Slightly hard and waxy skin

Your skin becomes hard and looks waxy. It indicates that permanent damage has begun. When the skin thaws, blisters filled with fluid, or blood appear on the skin that hurts or burns, it’s a time when you need to seek immediate medical treatment.

Flushing feeling on the skin

A flushing feeling is due to blood rushing into the body’s extremities. It indicates that your body is trying to fight the cold but is starting to fail to keep your extremities sufficiently warm.

Recognize if you have a deep stage of frostbite

Total numbness in the area

In the third stage, your lower layers of skin freeze, which causes total numbness in the affected area. You may be unable to move the frostbitten area, or you may not be able to move it normally. Get medical attention immediately.

Big blisters on the skin

Big blisters will ear on the frostbitten skin a day or two afterward.

Hard and blackened skin

If your skin appears blue and later turns black and hard indicates permanent damage to the affected skin and underlying tissues. The frostbitten skin turns black as its cells die from freezing. This black skin might form a hard black covering that falls off on its own and will usually need to be removed surgically.

Get out of the cold and seek treatment as soon as possible.

If you can get to a hospital or emergency department within two hours, you should not try to treat frostbite yourself.

Precautions to reduce potential damage to frostbitten areas

If you are unable to get out of the cold, then here are some precautionary measures you should take to reduce further damage to your affected tissues

  • Do not try rewarming the area if it is in danger of refreezing. It may cause more damage to your tissue.
  • Do not use any artificial heat source, such as a heating pad or a lamp, to warm an area of the body that may be affected by frostbite. 
  • Please do not walk on frostbitten toes or feet as it causes further damage to frostbitten tissues.  
  • Do not touch the frostbite area. Massaging an area affected by frostbite may cause more damage.
  • Do not pop any blisters that appear on a frostbitten area, as this will expose the injury to infection.

Monitor frostbite victims for hypothermia.

Hypothermia is the decrease in the core body temperature below 35°C in response to long exposure to very cold temperatures or water. Its symptoms include shivering, slurred speech, or loss of coordination.

Hypothermia is more serious and widespread in your body than frostbite, which affects specific parts of your exposed skin. You can get both hypothermia and frostbite simultaneously, and both are medical emergencies.

Quickly seek emergency medical assistance if you feel someone may be suffering from hypothermia.


Treat frostbite as quickly as you can. Get the frostbite victim out of the cold. Ideally, get to a hospital where professional medical care is given to a frostbite victim.

The article on How to Treat frostbite provides similar details on how to rewarm a frostbite area safely and seek professional treatment.


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