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First aid: frostbite

Frostbite is a condition caused due to the freezing of the skin and underlying tissues. Initially, your skin may become cold and red, turning pale, stiff, and numb after a point. Frostbite is more common on exposed body parts such as fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks, and jawline. Uncovered skin in a chilled and windy climate is generally defenseless against frostbite.

Frostbite regularly begins with mild effects and can advance and become very extreme, leading to appendage loss. Mild frostbite involves skin becoming either red or white and numb. There is rankling and hardening skin, hard skin (because of solidified bone and veins) in severe frostbite. Perhaps gangrene may also develop (tissue that has died and turned dark after the stoppage of blood supply). There is also a regular connection between frostbite and hypothermia. 

Stages of frostbite

Frostnip: Early-stage frostbite:

Frostnip is a mild form of frostbite and doesn’t permanently harm your skin. If you experience frostnip, your skin will turn reddish and feel cold. If you remain exposed to cold, it might feel numb or have a prickling sensation.

Prevent further exposure to cold. You may use primary medical aid gauges. Re-warm the affected area in a warm (not boiling) water bath for 15 to 30 minutes.

Superficial frostbite: Intermediate stage frostbite

During this phase of frostbite, your skin will turn from red to pale and white. Sometimes, it might seem blue. Ice gems may begin to shape your skin. Thus, the affected area of your skin may have a hard or solidified inclination when you contact it.

Your skin may likewise start to feel warm at this stage. It indicates that harm to your skin tissue is beginning to happen. The tissues beneath your skin are not yet damaged, however. A brief clinical treatment may forestall any further harm. Re-warming ought to happen as quickly as time permits.

Deep frostbite: Advanced stage frostbite

Deep frostbite is the most severe phase and affects your skin and the tissues below. If you’re encountering deep frostbite, the area’s skin may have a blue or splotchy look. It might feel numb to any sensations. Muscles near the influenced territory may not work correctly.

Deep frostbite requires prompt clinical attention. Like the treatment for superficial frostbite, your primary care physician will re-warm the region. They’ll give you a torment prescription, wrap the affected part, and give IV liquids.

Causes of Frostbite

The skin is your body’s largest organ and has a few layers. It protects you from external agents and helps you feel sensations through touch and pressure receptors. At the same time, blood vessels carry blood from and to different organs. On exposure to cold, there is constriction of blood vessels of the skin of extremities. They become cold, and their blood may freeze, resulting in tissue damage. It may mainly occur if :

  • Wearing apparel that cannot protect you from a cold or wet climate.
  • Staying exposed to a cold and harsh environment for a long can result in frostbite. Even with low wind speeds, an air temperature under minus 15 degrees Celcius is sufficient to harm. In a wind chill of less than 27 C, frostbite can happen on exposed skin within half an hour.
  • In contact with cold materials, like ice, cold packs, or chilled metal.

Signs and symptoms

Signs of frostbite include:

  • From the outset, cold skin and a prickling sensation
  • Red, white, somewhat blue-white, or grayish-yellow coloration of the skin
  • Hard or waxy-looking skin
  • Firmness in the joints and muscles.
  • Blister formation in the wake of re-warming, in severe cases

Risk factors of frostbite

Chances for frostbite increase if:

  • You have been exposed to cold temperatures for substantial periods. e.g., being a mountaineer
  • The weather is windy, along with being chilly.
  • Suppose one has conditions like diabetes or Raynaud’s phenomenon. These diseases may damage blood vessels and affect circulation.
  • People are on medication like beta-blockers that constrict the blood vessels. 

First aid frostbite (early-stage frostbite – frostnip)

You can completely treat the early stage of frostbite (frostnip) by providing a proper first. All other types of frostbite require medical attention. First-aid steps for frostbite are as follows:

  • Check for symptoms of hypothermia. Its symptoms include constant shivering, fatigue, tiredness, and fast breathing. Seek urgent medical assistance in case these are present.
  • Get in the warmer temperature. Remove wet clothes indoors, and cozily wrap yourself in a warm blanket. Do not break any blisters.
  • Rewarm the frostbitten area. Soak the affected area in lukewarm water at 37 to 40 C. Check the temperature by putting an uninjured hand in it. It should feel warm, not hot. Continue re-warming for about 30 minutes or until the skin becomes normal. It is healthy if you feel a tingling sensation as it warms and becomes red. You must get emergency medical help if numbness stays during warming or if you get blisters.
  • Over-the-counter pain relief medications may be taken, e.g., ibuprofen
  • You may drink warm beverages like tea or soup.
You may drink warm beverages (first aid: frostbite)
Credits: Pexels

When to seek medical care

Look for medical assistance  for frostbite if you experience:

  • Expanded torment, growing, redness, or release in the territory that was frostbitten
  • Fever
  • Signs and symptoms of superficial or deep frostbite
  • Swelling, blister formation, pain, or discharge at the affected area.

Suppose you presume it to be hypothermia. It is a condition wherein your body loses heat quicker than it may be created. Signs and side effects of hypothermia include:

  • Extreme trembling.
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of consciousness.
  1. Handford, C; Thomas, O; Imray, CHE (May 2017). “Frostbite.” Emergency Medicine Clinics of North America35 (2): 281–299. 
  2. Handford, C., Buxton, P., Russell, K. et al. Frostbite: a practical approach to hospital management. Extrem Physiol Med 3, 7 (2014)
  3. Reamy BV: Frostbite: review and current concepts. J Am Board Fam Pract. 1998
  4. NHS


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