Frostbite: Stages, Prevention & Treatment

In the cold, things can go bad quickly. Frostbite, for example, can happen in less than 10 minutes. When you live in a cold climate, or work in cold weather, it is important to learn about the different stages of frostbite, prevention & treatment.

The stages of frostbite are similar to burns. They have a tendency to get worse over time if not treated quickly & properly.

The 1st stage has been called first degree or frost nip. The skin starts out white, numb & nerves tingle. As the skin warms, color returns (normal to slightly red). Skin/nerves may feel prickly. Skin damage is superficial/not deep & not permanent.

2nd degree is the next stage of frostbite. Tissue damage is much deeper.  The skin gets worse with time, becomes red, tender & painful (a burning sensation). Blood filled blisters usually appear 1 or 2 days later. Nerve damage may result with a loss of feeling in the affected body part.

3rd degree frostbite is dangerous. All layers of the skin have been damaged. Skin is numb & feels cold & hard to the touch. The affected body part swells & skin appears waxy, black &/or dark blue as it dies. Skin damage is permanent. In the most severe cases, people have lost the tips of their ears, fingers, toes etc.

The amount of tissue damage from frostbite, depends on how long the skin has been frozen. Don’t take chances with frostbite, try these prevention tips:

-          Go indoors the minute you feel cold (micro breaks at work are recommended)

-          Stay dry & dress in layers appropriate for the temperature (avoid cotton)

-          Remember to factor in the wind chill

-          Cover vulnerable areas like your nose, cheeks, ears, fingers & toes

-          Avoid tight clothing, that may cut off circulation

Treatment for 1st degree frostbite or frost nip:

-          warm the skin in warm water (not hot) or use body heat. Do not use direct heat such as a fire or heating pad. The skin may be numb and can burn easily.

-          Warm the area only if you are sure it won’t freeze again.

-          Don’t rub the frozen area/skin (skin is damaged & friction makes it worse).

Treatment for 2nd & 3rd degree frostbite:

-          The degree of damage will get worse over time, so seek medical attention as soon as possible. Proper diagnosis & treatment are vital.

-          Avoid walking on feet if they have been affected by frostbite.

-          Keep damaged skin elevated to prevent swelling.

-          Put loose dry sterile bandages on blisters & open wounds (don’t break blisters).

Severe frostbite can be very painful with irreversable damage. Stay updated on weather forecasts. If it is extremely cold, even brief exposure to cold can cause frostbite. Take measures to protect your skin. Stay safe & stay warm!