Management of frostbite

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Once the winter season arrives, many enjoy spending time outdoors but it is important to be careful not to leave toes or fingers exposed too long to the cold weather. Being exposed to cold weather can lead to frostbite.  Remember that it will only take minutes for the exposed skin to become frostbitten if the temperature is below 20 degrees F and the wind is blowing at 20 mph or more.

How frostbite develops

When out in the cold, the priority of the body is to maintain its core temperature. In order to do this, the body shifts blood away from the extremities and toward the main organs. This will increase the risk of localized cold injury such as frostbite on the legs and arms.

The body tissues actually freeze once frostbite sets in. Ice crystals form in the cells, resulting to physical damage and lasting changes in the cell chemistry. Once the ice thaws out, further changes can occur and result to cell death. If only the skin surface is involved, it is called as superficial frostbite. If the underlying tissues are affected, it is called deep frostbite.

When out in the cold, the priority of the body is to maintain its core temperature.

How to avoid frostbite

Remember that it is easier to prevent frostbite than treat it. If the individual has to go outdoors during the cold weather, there are measures to bear in mind.

  • Always dress appropriately by wearing light, loose, layered clothing for insulation and ventilation. The outfit should be topped with a water-repellant fabric.
  • Always protect the head, feet and hands. It is important to note that substantial heat loss occurs via the scalp, thus head coverings are essential. It is best to opt for mittens for added warmth to the hands and a pair of socks to keep the feet warm.
  • Avoid smoking or drinking before going out into the cold. Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine will leave the skin susceptible to thermal injury.
  • If the individual is wet, it is best to go inside quickly and remove wet clothing as hastily as possible.
  • Check the individual every 30 minutes or so for any signs of frostbite. If the fingers, toes, ears or other parts of the body feel numb, it is best to go inside or seek shelter.

What are the symptoms?

  • Affected area is numb and there is loss of feeling
  • Skin appears white, waxy or grayish
  • Skin feels frozen but the deeper tissues are soft or the entire area feels hard, solid and frozen.


Frostbite is considered as a serious cold injury. It is important to seek medical care promptly if frostbite is suspected. To learn to recognize and manage cold-related conditions including frostbite, enroll in a first aid course and CPR course here. Additionally, those who have frostbite might develop hypothermia which requires immediate medical attention. If medical care is not readily available, there are measures to take into consideration.

  • Bring the individual to a warm area as soon as possible.
  • Call for medical assistance and while waiting, provide the individual with warm drinks such as tea or broth.
  • Make sure that the injured areas are properly rested.
  • Avoid walking using the affected feet and elevate slightly.
  • Remove any wet or constricting clothing and warm the affected area.
  • Immerse the affected area in warm water for at least 30-45 minutes or until the affected area feels warm and sensation returns. During the warming process, the individual can complain of severe pain and the injured area can swell or change color.

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