13 frostbite symptoms

13 frostbite symptoms
Depending on the stage, frostbite may result in the following 13 symptoms.

Frostbite can occur quickly in severe temperatures (as little as 10 minutes when the temperature falls to minus 10 degrees). It can irreversibly harm the skin and underlying tissue. In most instances, the damage is reversible.

Frostbite can cause the following symptoms according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  1. Cold skin
  2. A prickly sensation
  3. Numbness
  4. A red, white, blue-white, or gray-yellow tint to your skin
  5. Warmth returning to your skin even as cold exposure persists
  6. Skin that feels hard or looks waxy
  7. Joint and muscle stiffness bad enough to make you clumsy
  8. Mottled skin on rewarming
  9. Pain, stinging, burning, or swelling on rewarming
  10. In extreme frostbite cases, skin blistering on rewarming
  11. Skin that becomes hard and black
  12. Loss of area function, such as joints and muscles
  13. Itchy parts

What are the 3 phases and 4 degrees of frostbite?

Frostbite symptoms can appear in three phases. It is critical to understand the stages to prevent or cure the condition properly.

  1. Frostnip
    • Frostnip is reversible and does not cause permanent skin harm.
    • This mild form of frostbite occurs when skin becomes too cold but does not fully freeze.
    • Frostnip symptoms include acute coldness of the exposed body area, flushed skin, and numbness.
    • These occur as part of the body's normal response to cold, which is to constrict blood vessels in the skin and reallocate blood to the core to maintain a safe body temperature.
    • When the skin warms up after suffering frostnip, there may be pain and tingling. This can be unpleasant, but it is to be expected as normal blood flow returns to those locations.
  2. Superficial frostbite
    • There are no hard and fast guidelines regarding how long it takes for superficial frostbite to develop the following frostnip.
    • It is determined by the temperature outside and the length of time the skin has been exposed. Frostnip can lead to superficial frostbite in minutes in high conditions.
    • Superficial frostbite can turn reddish skin white or paler than normal. Even if the skin is still exposed to the cold, it may begin to feel unexpectedly warm.
    • When your skin is frostbitten, the capillaries (thin blood vessels) in it can burst and spill. Blood rushes in and irritates the skin. This generates heat, but it is unhealthy.
    • Because of the broken capillaries, when you rewarm superficially frostbitten skin, it may appear strangely mottled instead of returning to its normal color.
    • There may be stinging, burning, and swelling, as well as blisters that appear 12 to 36 hours after rewarming.
  3. Deep frostbite
    • If frostbite progresses beyond the superficial stage, it can affect all layers of skin and tissues beneath it.
    • At this stage, the skin may turn white, blue-gray, or gray-yellow, and it may become so numb that all sensation in the area is lost, including cold and pain.
    • If the cold has permeated joints and muscles, they may no longer function properly, resulting in clumsiness.
    • Blisters may appear 24 to 48 hours after the skin has been rewarmed.
    • Following that, the area may become black and hard, indicating that the skin and possibly other tissues are dying.
    • Deep frostbite is a serious medical emergency that necessitates medical attention.

4 degrees of frostbite

  1. First degree: The formation of ice crystals on the skin.
  2. Second degree: Even though the skin has not yet defrosted, it begins to feel warm.
  3. Third degree: Skin becomes red, pale, or white.
  4. Fourth degree: The pain lasts for several hours, and there may be dark blue or black areas beneath the skin.


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Where does frostbite occur?

Frostbite can occur anywhere on the body, including the

  • Nose
  • Ears
  • Cheeks
  • Lips
  • Fingers
  • Toes

Who is at risk of developing frostbite?

Exposure to cold weather is the most common cause of frostbite. It can, however, be caused by direct contact with ice, frozen metal, or extremely cold liquids.

The following are some of the most common risk factors for frostbite:

  • Alcohol, mental Illness: These impair a person's ability to make decisions. They inhibit usual self-protective behaviors.
  • Medical conditions:
  • Type of contact:
    • Frostbite is exacerbated when the skin and clothing are moist
    • Touching cold metal with bare hands can result in frostbite almost immediately
    • Touching cold-stored products with bare hands might potentially result in frostbite
  • Length of contact:
    • The longer you are exposed, the more heat you will lose and the likelihood of frostbite will increase
    • On a chilly day, the wind-chill index influences how rapidly frostbite occurs
  • Others:
    • People who smoke
    • Older people
    • Homeless without proper clothing
    • People who are not properly clothed and stay outdoors too long (workers, hikers)
    • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that anyone who uses illicit drugs is at high risk

How is frostbite treated?

The treatment of frostbite usually depends on the stage.

Frostnip (first-degree frostbite)

  • Simple first-aid procedures, such as limiting further cold exposure and rewarming, are recommended.
  • The damaged area is rewarmed by soaking it in warm water for 15 to 30 minutes.
  • Pain can be relieved with over-the-counter drugs, such as ibuprofen.

Superficial (second-degree) frostbite

  • The damaged areas should be warmed immediately.
  • The doctor may give pain relievers and intravenous (IV) fluids. After the region has warmed up, the doctor will bandage it to protect it.
  • Blisters can form after rewarming. In such circumstances, the doctor may drain them.
  • Antibiotics are often administered if the blister appears to be infected.

Deep (third-degree) frostbite

  • The area is rewarmed. The doctor will administer pain medication, IV fluids and wrap the affected area.
  • If you have developed blood-filled blisters, your doctor may prescribe a "clot-buster." This increases blood flow to the affected area.
  • Due to tissue death, the region is black and hard after rewarming. Large blisters may form after 24 to 48 hours.
  • Depending on the extent of the damage, the damaged area may require surgery to remove dead tissues (debridement), or it may be amputated.

What are the complications of frostbite?

If frostbite is not treated, you may develop the following complications:

  • Death of the affected tissue, causing blisters and pain
  • Increased sensitivity to cold
  • Increased risk of developing frostbite again
  • Long-term numbness in the affected area
  • Excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis)
  • Changes in skin color
  • Changes in or loss of nails
  • Joint stiffness (frostbite arthritis)
  • Growth defects in children if frostbite damages a bone's growth plate
  • Infection
  • Tetanus
  • Gangrene (decay and death of tissue)
  • Hypothermia


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6 ways to prevent a frostbite

To prevent frostbite, preparation is important before heading outdoors.

The American Academy of Dermatology shares the following tips:

  1. Dress in loose, light, comfortable layers:
    • Wearing loose, light clothing help trap warm air.
    • The first layer of clothing should be made of a synthetic material that can drain moisture away from your body.
    • The following layer should be insulating the body. Use wool and fleece clothing to keep the heat.
    • Choose an outer layer that is windproof and waterproof (or water-resistant).
  2. Cover up:
    • Make sure you have dressed appropriately for the weather.
    • Hats shield your head and ears from the cold. Scarves and face masks can help protect the ears, nose, cheeks, and chin from frostbite.
    • What appears to be a short time spent outside could easily develop into hours in freezing weather due to unforeseen circumstances, such as a car accident (or breakdown) or locking yourself out of the house.
  3. Protect your feet:
    • If you participate in cold-weather activities, wear two pairs of socks to protect your feet and toes.
    • To keep your feet dry, use a pair of moisture-wicking socks.
    • Then, for warmth, add a wool or wool-blend sock.
    • Your boots should be insulated and tall enough to keep snow out.
  4. Avoid metal: Because metal conducts cold, avoid touching metal surfaces with exposed skin.
  5. Keep skin dry: Wear waterproof or water-resistant apparel to keep snow, ice, and rain out, and change out of clothing that becomes damp from the weather or perspiration.
  6. Stay hydrated: Before you go outside, drink a glass of water and sip water or sports drink before and during your outdoor workouts; dehydration inhibits blood circulation.

To heal completely after getting frostbite, the tissue must be free of infection or injury. The elimination of dead tissues could take up to three months. The patient should be monitored for at least three to four months.

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Medically Reviewed on 3/2/2022
Image Source: iStock Images

Cleveland Clinic. Frostbite. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15439-frostbite

University of Utah Health. Frostbite treatment. https://healthcare.utah.edu/burncenter/conditions-treatment/frostbite.php

Mount Sinai. Frostbite. https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/injury/frostbite

Middlesex Health. Frostbite. https://middlesexhealth.org/learning-center/diseases-and-conditions/frostbite

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Frostbite. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/frostbite/