Frostbite and Cold Weather-Related Injuries

  • Medical Author:
    Steven Doerr, MD

    Steven Doerr, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Doerr received his undergraduate degree in Spanish from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He graduated with his Medical Degree from the University Of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, Colorado in 1998 and completed his residency training in Emergency Medicine from Denver Health Medical Center in Denver, Colorado in 2002, where he also served as Chief Resident.

  • Medical Editor: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

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Winter is the prime time for cold weather-related injuries like frostbite, chilblains, and trench foot

Frostbite Symptoms and Signs

Signs and symptoms of frostbite include:

  • The areas of the body affected by frostbite feel cold and firm.
  • Burning, tingling, stinging, or numbing sensations
  • Clumsiness can result from impaired motor control.
  • Swelling, redness, loss of sensation, and white plaques on the skin
  • Blisters filled with blood

Frostbite and cold weather-related injuries facts

  • Cold weather-related injuries occur with and without freezing of body tissues.
  • Cold weather-related injuries include chilblains, trench foot, frostnip, and frostbite.
  • Signs and symptoms may include:
    • tingling,
    • numbness, and
    • changes in the color and texture of the skin.
  • Treatment generally includes moving out of the cold environment, removing wet clothing, and rewarming the affected area.
  • Frostbite is a serious cold weather-related injury that requires immediate medical attention and rapid rewarming. Do not thaw the affected area if there is the risk of refreezing.
  • Certain individuals, such as the elderly, children, alcoholics, and the homeless, are at increased risk of developing cold weather-related injuries.
  • Prevention of cold weather-related injuries is best accomplished through proper planning and preparation for cold weather.

Introduction to frostbite and cold weather-related injuries

Winter cold and snow provide a number of opportunities to get outside and participate in activities such as skiing, sledding, and snowmobiling. However, without proper protection, cold weather-related injuries can occur even when temperatures are above freezing (32 F, 0 C). This is especially true if there are high winds or if clothing is wet. In general, however, it is both the temperature and the duration of exposure that play a role in determining the extent and severity of cold weather-related injuries. This information describes the different types of cold weather-related injuries, as well as what to do to prevent and treat them prior to reaching a health care practitioner.

What type of injuries can be caused by cold weather?

Cold weather-related injuries can be divided into two general categories.

  1. Conditions that occur without the freezing of body tissue such as:
  • chilblains,
  • trench foot, and
  • frostnip,
  1. Injuries that occur with the freezing of body tissue, such as frostbite.

Hypothermia is a medical condition characterized by a core body temperature that is abnormally low.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/23/2016
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