Ask the doctor: Do I have frostbite?

Q. It has been extremely cold where I live.  Should I be worried about getting frostbite?  What are the symptoms and how can I protect myself from getting it?


A. Unfortunately, with the cold that we have been experiencing lately, frostbite is becoming more common.

cold winter 300x199 Ask the doctor: Do I have frostbite? Photo

Are you dressed enough to beat frostbite this winter?

Both hypothermia and frostbite are due to cold temperatures.  However, hypothermia refers to your entire body temperature being too low.  This can be lethal and medical attention is crucial immediately.

Frostbite occurs when exposed body parts are injured from being too cold.  It can happen rapidly with severe conditions and cold temperatures, but is more common when someone is in freezing temperatures for a long time.

Wind chills can actually create a climate ripe for frostbite even when the temperature is above freezing according to the National Weather Service. Including wind chill, when the temperature drops below zero degrees Fahrenheit, exposed skin can freeze in only 5 minutes!

Blood flow is diverted from your extremities to your vital organs in the extreme weather, making skin and tissue freeze from your toes, fingers, nose, ears and face.


External surface injuries may demonstrate:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Blisters
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Itching
  • Affected areas may seem frozen and white

This is not permanent.

Deep frostbite affecting muscles, tendons and bones may need to be treated by amputation.

Signs of deep frostbite include:

  • Numbness
  • Sensation completely lost
  • Swelling
  • Blood-filled blisters
  • Skin appears waxy and turns purplish-blue
  • Hardened
  • Area may blacken


Any condition that restricts blood flow to your external body parts can put you at a higher risk for frostbite.  Conditions include:

  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Poor circulation
  • Dehydration
  • Alcohol use
  • Nicotine use
  • Beta-blocker drug use
  • Wearing metal jewelry i.e. earrings

Children are at greater risk because they lose warmth from skin faster than adults and play outside too long.

What to do if frostbite is suspected

Your first step is to get out of the cold and seek a warm area.

Soak the affected body part in warm water for 30 minutes or until the area becomes soft and flexible. Non-prescription pain medications can also help with the pain from rewarming.

Don’t get too close to a fire or source of heat that can burn because you may not feel the danger.  Don’t rub or massage the area since this can cause more damage.


Exercise can increase blood flow to the body parts at risk for frostbite and help avoid it.  Wear loose-fitting clothing in layers for insulation and ventilation.  Wool is preferred over cotton as it insulates better if wet.

According to the CDC, the clothing recommended is:

  • Inner layer of silk, wool or polypropylene
  • Outer layer of wind resistant material
  • Water-repellent fabric externally

Make sure that you let someone know where and when you are going out so that others can keep tabs on you.

The main thing: Keep Warm!