Frostbite is a condition caused when the skin and its underlying tissue is frozen and damaged. It occurs when the skin is exposed to the cold for a prolonged amount of time (or to frigid temperatures for even a short period of time). While cold weather is the most common contributor to frostbite, it can also be caused by contact between the skin and ice, cold metal, or freezing liquids.

Symptoms

Early indicators are skin that turns cold and red, and eventually numb, pale, and hard to the touch. Frostbite sufferers may become clumsy or unsteady because of muscle stiffness, and the skin may blister and change color as it thaws. Frostbite occurs most commonly on the toes, fingers, ears, nose, chin, and cheeks. Any exposed skin, however, is susceptible to frostbite in cold, windy weather. In extreme conditions, even skin that is covered by gloves or shoes can become frostbitten.

Because the skin becomes numb quickly, the sufferer may not realize they are in danger of frostbite until someone points out the symptoms to them.

There are varying stages of frostbite, starting with frostnip (the mildest form) and extending to deep frostbite that results in dead tissue, blackened skin, and severe blistering.

Prevention

To prevent frostbite, limit the time spent outside in extremely cold, windy, and wet weather. Always check weather forecasts and dress appropriately, in several layers of warm, loose-fitting clothing. Windbreakers and waterproof raingear and footwear can protect the extremities from bad weather. Hats, headbands, or earmuffs should be worn to protect the ears from wind and cold.

Check for early signs of frostbite after exposure to the cold and find warm shelter at the first indication of red, numb, or “prickling” skin. It’s a good idea to pack emergency supplies and extra clothing and blankets in the event of a vehicle breakdown or another unexpected situation that may lead to exposure to prolonged cold.

When to see a doctor

Seek immediate medical attention if symptoms of frostbite are present during or after exposure to the cold or if the skin becomes painful to the touch, swollen, red, or blistered. Other symptoms that may require urgent evaluation and treatment include unexplained fever, intense shivering, drowsiness or loss of coordination, and slurred speech.