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Hot to Spot and Prevent Frostbite

When the temperature dips below freezing, it’s critical to protect your skin from cold-weather health risks. Frostbite occurs when the skin – and sometimes the tissue beneath the skin – freezes due to prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. Depending on how long and how frozen the tissue, frostbite can result in severe, sometimes permanent, damage.

Just like how water turns to ice when the temperature drops, your fingers, hands, toes, feet — even your nose and ears — can freeze. Being further away from your core, they are the first organs affected by decreased blood flow in response to cold. How soon this happens depends on how cold and windy it is outside. It can happen faster than you may think. In severely frigid weather, frostbite can happen in just 5 minutes.

What are the warning signs?

Skin exposed to extreme may get red or sore. This is called frostnip, and it’s an early warning sign of frostbite. Symptoms of frostbite depend on how deep it goes into the body. There are three stages. Early frostbite affects the top layers of the skin. More advanced cases can go all the way through to the muscles and bones.

Early signs of frostbite include:

  • Skin that is paler than normal, cold, firm and dry.

  • Pain, tingling, burning or aching

  • Swelling

  • Blisters in the first 24 hours after exposure

If you experience symptoms of frostbite, try to gradually bring feeling back into the body. Never rub frostbitten skin or submerge your hands or feet directly into hot water; use warm water or a warm washcloth instead.

How to prevent frostbite

  • Dress in loose, light, comfortable layers which helps to trap warm air. The first layer should be made of a synthetic material, which wicks moisture away from your body. The next layer should be insulating, such as wool or fleece which hold in more body heat than cotton. The top layer should be windproof and waterproof. A down parka and ski pants can help keep you dry and warm during outdoor activities.

  • Protect your feet and toes by wearing two pairs of socks. The first pair, next to your skin, should be made of moisture-wicking fabric. Place a pair of wool or wool-blend socks on top of those. Your boots should also provide adequate insulation. They should be waterproof and cover your ankles. Make sure that nothing feels tight, as tight clothing increases the risk of frostbite.

  • Protect your head and ears with a heavy wool or fleece hat. If you are outside on a bitterly cold day, cover your face with a scarf or face mask. This warms the air you breathe and helps prevent frostbite on your nose and face.

  • Protect your hands by wearing insulated mittens or gloves.

  • Make sure snow cannot get inside of your boots or clothing. Wet clothing increases the risk of developing frostbite. While outdoors, if you start to sweat, cut back on your activity or unzip your jacket a bit.

  • Keep yourself hydrated. Dehydration also increases the risk of developing frostbite. Even if you are not thirsty, drink at least one glass of water before you head outside, and always drink water or a sports drink before an outdoor workout. In addition, avoid alcohol, as it increases your risk for frostbite.

  • Recognize the symptoms. In order to detect frostbite early, when it’s most treatable, it’s important to recognize the symptoms. The first signs of frostbite include redness and a stinging, burning, throbbing or prickling sensation followed by numbness. If this occurs, head indoors immediately.

When to call the doctor

  • Fever over 101°F

  • Redness of the area or red streaks coming from the area

  • Swelling

  • Thick drainage

  • Blisters develop in the frostbitten area.

  • Normal color feeling does not come back after one hour of warming.

If the frostbite is not treated, later signs include a dark, purple-black skin color, and no feeling or pain in the affected part of the body. If you do not feel sensation returning to your body, or if the skin begins to turn gray, go to an emergency room immediately.

For more information or to request an appointment, please contact Dr. Patrick McDaid, M.D. at

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