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What is frostbite?

Frostbite is an injury that happens when the skin and tissue beneath the skin freezes. People usually get frostbite on the hands, feet, nose, and ears.

What increases my risk for frostbite?

You are at risk for frostbite if you are out in cold weather for a long time. Frostbite is more likely to happen to skin that is not covered. People who have poor circulation or cannot feel the effects of cold have a higher risk of frostbite. This includes the elderly, people with diabetes, or those who abuse alcohol or smoke.

What are the signs and symptoms of frostbite?

  • Your skin first becomes cold and red. Then it gets numb and hard, and it turns white. Your skin color changes from white to red as it warms. You may feel pain, tingling, and burning as your skin warms. Your skin may swell and you may develop blisters.
  • With more severe frostbite, you may develop blisters filled with blood. The most severe type of frostbite causes gangrene. With gangrene, the skin turns black and the tissue dies. Healthcare providers may not know how much tissue damage has been caused by frostbite for several weeks.

How is frostbite diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine the areas of your skin that have frostbite. He will also ask you about your signs and symptoms.

  • ECG: This is also called an EKG. A short period of electrical activity in your heart is recorded to check for damage or problems.
  • Blood tests: You may need blood taken to give healthcare providers information about how your body is working. The blood may be taken from your hand, arm, or IV.
  • MRI: This scan uses powerful magnets and a computer to take pictures of your blood vessels. An MRI may show if there is any damage to your blood vessels. You may be given dye to help the pictures show up better. Tell healthcare providers if you are allergic to iodine or shellfish. You may also be allergic to the dye. Do not enter the MRI room with any metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell healthcare providers if you have any metal in or on your body.
  • Bone scan: This is a test to look at your bones. You are given a small amount of dye in an IV. Pictures are taken of your bones to see if there is any damage from frostbite.

How is frostbite treated?

  • Warm bath: A warm bath may help rewarm the areas of your body that have frostbite.
  • Bandages: The areas of your body with frostbite may need to be bandaged. Clean, sterile, bandages will help keep these areas from getting infected. Gauze pads may be put on and between injured fingers or toes.
  • Medicines:
    • Antibiotics: Antibiotic medicine may be given to treat an infection caused by bacteria.
    • NSAIDs: This medicine decreases swelling, pain, and fever. NSAIDs are available without a doctor's order. Ask your healthcare provider which medicine is right for you and how much to take. Take as directed. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems if not taken correctly.
    • Pain medicine: You may be given a prescription medicine to decrease severe pain. Do not wait until the pain is severe before you take your pain medicine.
    • Td vaccine is a booster shot used to help prevent tetanus and diphtheria. The Td booster may be given to adolescents and adults every 10 years or for certain wounds and injuries.

What are the risks of frostbite?

Even with treatment, you may have severe damage to blood vessels, muscles, and nerve tissue. You may lose a body part that has severe frostbite. You may be sensitive to cold and have burning and tingling in the areas of your body that have had frostbite. Without treatment, you could lose skin or a body part that has severe frostbite.

How do I manage my symptoms?

  • Elevate: Raise the frostbitten area above the level of your heart as often as you can. This will help decrease swelling and pain. Prop the frostbitten area on pillows or blankets to keep it elevated.
  • Foot cradle: This will help keep bedding off your feet if they have frostbite. Bedding could rub against the frostbitten area and cause pain. Cut 2 sides off a large cardboard box. Put the box under your sheets at the foot of your bed. Put one of the open sections facing the head of the bed and the other open section against the mattress.
  • Activity: Move the part of your body that has frostbite as much as possible. This will help keep blood flowing through the area and help it heal faster. Do not walk on frostbitten feet if possible.

How can I help prevent frostbite?

  • Wear several layers of loose, warm clothes: Put these layers under a windproof and waterproof coat. Your head, face, and neck should be covered with a warm hat and scarf. Breathing through your scarf helps prevent loss of body heat. Make sure your hands, ears, and feet are covered.
  • Use the buddy system when you are outside for long periods: This is when you and the people you are with check each other for white areas on your face and ears.
  • Do not drink alcohol or smoke before you go out in the cold: Alcohol and tobacco increase your risk of frostbite.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have blisters filled with blood.
  • Your pain gets worse.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have swelling, redness, or pus in the area that was frostbitten.
  • You have a fever.
  • The skin with frostbite turns black.
  • You lose feeling in the area that was frostbitten.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

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