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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Exams and Tests

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and will ask you questions about your medical history and medications you may be taking.

Your doctor may ask the following questions:

  • How many times in the day and night are you urinating?
  • Are there changes in the color of your urine? Do you have light or dark urine?
  • Do you have frequent pain, discomfort or a burning sensation while urinating?
  • Have you made any recent dietary changes?
  • Do you have other symptoms (increased thirst, weight loss, fever, back pain)?

Your doctor may order any of the following tests, depending on the findings of the physical exam and medical history.

  • Urinalysis and urine culture: These tests detect and measure various components of the urine. A urine culture can detect bacteria that may be the cause of a urinary tract infection.
  • Ultrasonography: This noninvasive imaging test is used to visualize your kidneys and bladder to detect any structural abnormalities or tumors.
  • Cystometry: This test measures the pressure inside the bladder and checks for the possibility of muscle or nerve problems that may cause frequent urination.
  • Cystoscopy: This is an invasive test that allows a doctor to look at the inside of the bladder and urethra using a thin, lighted instrument called a cystoscope.
  • Neurological tests: Diagnostic tests such as urodynamics, imaging, EEG, and EMG are procedures that help the doctor confirm or rule out the presence of a nerve disorder.

What is the recovery time for a frostbite injury?

The recovery time for a frostbite injury depends on the extent of tissue injury and whether or not there are any subsequent complications, such as infection. It may take 1 to 3 months before it is possible to determine the extent of tissue damage, and to clearly delineate which tissue is still viable. Some individuals will require debridement, skin grafting, or amputation of the affected area. Some patients will experience long-term sequelae from frostbite injuries, such as sensitivity to the cold with associated pain or burning, arthritis, increased sweating, and tingling of the affected area. Rarely, death occurs from infection-related complications.

When should a person seek medical care for a cold weather-related injury?

  • Chilblains can generally be treated at home, though if signs of infection develop from an open sore, individuals should consult a health-care professional. Patients with recurrent chilblains should also seek medical care, as there may be another underlying disease process leading to this condition.
  • Frostnip can be managed at home, and this condition does not typically require further evaluation.
  • Individuals with trench foot should generally consult a health-care professional to assess the degree of injury and to monitor for any signs of infection or gangrene.
  • Individuals with frostbite or suspected frostbite should immediately go to an emergency room. Furthermore, these individuals may also be suffering from hypothermia, which requires additional treatment and evaluation, and may constitute a life-threatening condition. These are serious cold weather-related injuries that may require admission to a hospital.

Who is most likely to get a cold weather-related injury and what can be done to prevent it?

Anybody can develop a cold weather-related injury.

  • The young and the elderly are more prone to these types of injuries due to vascular compromise or inability to effectively redistribute body heat. In addition, individuals who work outdoors, the homeless, and those who engage in outdoor activities are more likely to develop cold weather-related injuries due to their increased chance and time of exposure to the cold conditions.
  • Alcohol and illicit drug use also make it more likely that individuals will develop a cold weather-related injury because these individuals have impaired judgment and they may not sense that they are in danger.
  • Patients with certain medical conditions including psychiatric illness, circulatory problems, diabetes, dehydration, and smoking can develop a cold weather-related injury more quickly than other individuals.

The prevention of cold weather-related injuries is best achieved through careful pre-planning and preparation for the cold, when possible.

  • Travel with another person in case an emergency occurs. Take along an emergency kit and blankets in your car in case of a breakdown or accident.
  • Dress warmly using multiple layers and adequately cover body areas prone to injury.
  • Try to have an extra change of dry clothing so you can remove any wet clothing if necessary.
  • Always keep your hands and feet dry and avoid wearing tight fitting clothing on these areas as it may decrease the circulation. Use waterproof shoes.
  • Drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol, caffeinated drinks, and smoking. Carry high-calorie snacks to provide adequate nutrition.
  • Most importantly, however, move indoors to a warmer environment when you begin to feel cold.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/23/2016

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