Frostbite Symptoms and Signs

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Frostbite is an injury resulting from freezing of the tissues in the body. The hands and feet are most commonly affected by frostbite, but the nose, cheeks, shins, ears, and even the corneas of the eyes may be affected by frostbite.

Frostbite typically occurs in soldiers or others who work outdoors, or in outdoor winter sports enthusiasts. People who become stranded outdoors can also become victims of frostbite. Nicotine and other drugs that reduce blood circulation to the extremities (called vasoconstrictive drugs) can increase a person's chances of developing frostbite. There is no official reporting system for frostbite cases in the U.S., but it is known to affect predominantly residents of the northern states, including Alaska. Research has shown that African American men and women are slightly more prone to develop frostbite than Caucasians. Other people who may be more predisposed to frostbite are those of Arabic descent and those who reside in warm climates. Men develop frostbite more often than women, but this may reflect a greater participation in sports and outdoor activities.

The areas of the body affected by frostbite feel cold and firm. Burning, tingling, stinging, or numbing sensations may be present. Clumsiness can result from impaired motor control. When the affected body part is rewarmed, a throbbing or burning pain may result. Frostbite, like burns, is classified according to the degree of tissue injury. Minor injuries result in swelling, redness, loss of sensation, and white plaques on the skin. More severe lesions have blisters that may become filled with blood. In the most extreme cases, full-thickness freezing damages bones and muscles, resulting in tissue death and loss of the affected area.

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