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3 Essential Things You Need to Know About Frostbite This Winter

It’s winter, and that means risk of frostbite is climbing. You might think you’re not at risk, but you could get frostbite if you:

To understand more about frostbite risks, prevention and treatments, we spoke with Jasjot Johar, MD, an emergency medicine specialist at Banner Health in Loveland, CO.

1. With frostbite, you could lose a finger, toe, hand, or foot

Your skin, fat tissue, and muscle can freeze when it’s exposed to cold. “There are two parts to the injury,” said Dr. Johar. “First, the freezing causes ice crystals to form within cells causing damage. And second, when blood is moving very slowly it can lead to blood clots and loss of blood flow to skin, muscle, and even bone.”

“Frostbite injury can be a temporary inconvenience or a permanent loss,” Johar said. “The worst injuries occur when tissues freeze, thaw with rewarming, and then re-freeze.” This cycle leads to increased risk of amputations.

People at higher risk of developing frostbite are:

  • Homeless
  • Using drugs or alcohol
  • Participating in outdoor recreational activities
  • Shoveling snow
  • Victims of motor vehicle accidents
  • Patients with dementia who wander from their home or facility

2. You can prevent frostbite a lot of the time

Along with a coat, wear a hat, gloves or mittens, and boots to keep your skin covered and warm. If your fingers or toes start to feel numb, go inside to warm them up. Protect your nose, cheeks, chin, and ears. If you know you’ll be outside for a long time, use hand and foot warmers. And stay dry! Cold is dangerous, but cold and wet is deadly.

Watch for any of these warning signs of frostbite:

  • Your fingers, toes, hands, or feet feel cold or clumsy
  • Your skin looks pale, mottled or blue
  • When you rewarm cold areas, they burn or tingle
  • Blisters appear 6 to 24 hours after rewarming

Along with frostbite, watch for signs of hypothermia, where you’re getting cold faster than your body can keep you warm. If you’re shivering, your speech is slurred, or you’re feeling uncoordinated, get indoors and get warm.

3. Medical care can help save frostbitten areas

If you rewarm your fingers, toes, hands, or feet and they still feel cool and look pale or blue, go to the emergency department. Rewarming needs to occur promptly. In some cases, doctors can give you medication to thin your blood, dissolve clots, and get the blood flowing again.

Emergency department doctors might refer you to a burn center. “Frostbite is considered a ‘cold burn’ and is frequently managed in burn centers,” Dr. Johar said. “The burn center specializes in wound healing and pain management in an environment designed to prevent infection.”

Healing from frostbite can take a long time. “If someone gets frostbite in January, they may still require surgery for that frostbite in June,” Dr. Johar said.

After frostbite, you might still notice burning pain, sensitivity, or numbness in the damaged tissues. And you’ll need to be extra careful to protect those areas from frostbite in the future.

Even if you were born in northern states or if you “run hot”, your body is prone to frostbite just like anyone else’s. Protect yourself and your family with safe habits.

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Content was updated on August 3, 2022.

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