Frostbite: Stages, Symptoms & Treatment Advice


Frostbite is defined the by the NHS as damage to skin and tissue caused by exposure to freezing temperatures – typically any temperature below minus 0.55C (31F) – and is caused, at least in part, by your body’s natural response to the cold.

As your body temperature drops, your blood vessels narrow and much of the blood flow to the extremities is redirected to vital organs. The resulting additional drop in the internal temperature of your extremities then causes fluids within to freeze, which can cause significant cellular destruction is allowed to progress. This is why, while frostbite can technically affect any part of the body, your hands, feet, ears nose and lips are most at risk.

The symptoms of frostbite include: cold skin coupled with a prickling sensation, discolouration of the skin, joint & muscle stiffness, hard or waxy skin and, in more severe cases, blistering after rewarming. The symptoms you are experiencing will tell you which of the three stages of frostbite you are currently in.

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While it may have a relatively ‘cute’ name, frostnip is in fact a warning of sign of worse things to come if not acted upon. At this mild stage of frostbite you will notice your skin taking on a red hue and cold feel, which will with continued exposure result in an uncomfortable prickling sensation.

When rewarming the skin from this stage you may find it slightly painful, but no permanent damage will be caused.

Superficial Frostbite

When the reddened skin starts to turn pale you have progressed to the second stage of frostbite, as ice crystals begin to form in the tissue. You may actually think the condition is lessening, as your skin may feel warm, but this is actually a sign of serious skin involvement.

Upon rewarming your skin could take on a mottled blue/purple appearance, with an accompanying stinging or burning sensation. Swelling often follows and a fluid-filled blister may appear, although this typically takes 24-36 hours.

Severe/Deep Frostbite

This is the kind of frostbite you tend to hear about in the news, when the condition has progressed so far as to affect all layers of the skin and even the underlying tissue. This results in numbness, or even complete loss of sensation for cold, pain or discomfort, and may cause joint and muscles to cease to work properly if at all. Blisters will be more severe at this stage, with multiple appearing 24-48 hours later. The area will then turn black and hard as the tissue has now died. Sufferers of particularly severe frostbite may require amputation of the affected area.

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Any person suffering from frostbite should be moved as soon as possible to a warm environment; this is not only to help the affected area warm up, but because the victim is likely also suffering from hypothermia.  Do not put pressure on the area.

Further warming and treatment should be undertaken be a healthcare professional. The process should be gradual, and will be highly painful for the victim.

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.

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Last modified: 16th April 2018