What is frostbite? It is when cold weather causes your fingers, hands, toes, feet, nose and/or ears to freeze when they aren’t adequately covered in freezing temperatures. This condition, which can destroy tissue, doesn’t take long—in super-frigid weather, frostbite can occur in as little as 5 minutes.
This is because in the cold, our bodies maintain warmth by focusing blood flow towards our heart and lungs which leave our extremities more vulnerable to frostbite, especially our fingers and toes.
Exposed skin can become red or sore in frigid weather. This is frostnip—an early sign of frostbite. If you experience frostnip, find warm shelter right away.
There are three stages of frostbite, depending upon how deeply it penetrates the body. While early frostbite impacts the skin’s top layers, advanced frostbite can go to the bones and muscles.
In the early stage of frostbite, the skin turns pale yellow white. It can itch, sting, burn, or feel like pins and needles. In the next stage, the skin becomes hard, appears waxy or shiny, and might have fluid-filled blisters or blood formation when the skin thaws. With advanced frostbite, the skin is very hard, and cold to the touch. It can darken quickly, looking blue or black.
Warning: it can be hard to detect frostbite because as it intensifies, you can no longer feel the area. So watch for changes in skin color.
To avoid frostbite, layer clothing loosely so that body heat can move around. Three layers are ideal:
• One layer of material to stay dry
• The second layer should insulate—like wool or fleece
• The top layer should be worn on top and be wind-proof and waterproof
Wear a hat that covers your head and ears. Wool or fleece hats with ear flaps are ideal for keeping ears protected and warm.
Wear mittens or gloves that insulate and don’t take them off to use your phone.
Protect your feet! Feet are super prone to frostbite. Start with socks that resist moisture, and then layer wool socks over them. Wear warm, waterproof boots that cover your ankles.
Don’t use alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine before and while you are outside—they increase the skin’s risk of thermal injury.
Get to a warm place and take off any wet clothing right away.
If you think you have frostbite:
• Get to a warm place ASAP
• Do NOT rub your skin; this can cause damage if frozen
• Do NOT walk on feet that have been frostbitten
• Do NOT place cold hands or feet in hot water—this can cause more damage. Soak the affected hands / feet in WARM water (104 F to 107F or place a washcloth with WARM (not hot) water on the affected parts—like nose and ears—that can’t be put under water, for at least a half hour.
• This should help your skin to begin healing. It might get red as it thaws, and you might feel painful stinging or prickling like “pins and needles.”
Go to the Emergency Room if:
• Your skin changes color or hardens
• Your skin is numb and you can’t feel anything
• You feel intense pain as your skin is thawing
• Blisters start to form on your skin