Frostbite

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., ACCESS Media Relations Specialist
December 31, 2015

​​Frostbite occurs when there is a lack of blood circulation to the skin due to cold temperatures. The lack of warm blood supply causes the skin to freeze and if not treated promptly, can cause severe damage to the affected tissue.

Since Chicago is infamous for its harsh winter weather, it is important to know how you can prevent frostbite and how to recognize the signs before damage occurs. 

Signs and Symptoms of Frostbite

Frostbite occurs most often on the fingers, toes, ears, nose and cheeks. It occurs in three stages: frostnip, superficial frostbite and deep frostbite.

  1. Frostnip. Frostnip is the first warning sign of frostbite. It occurs when the skin gets sore, red or becomes white in color or pale due to exposure to cold temperatures. If you experience frostnip, it is important to seek warm shelter immediately. As your skin warms up after experiencing frostnip, you may feel tingling or burning in the affected areas. Frostnip only affects the top layers of skin and doesn't cause permanent damage.

  2. Superficial frostbite. Superficial frostbite occurs when the reddened skin starts to become a white or pale color. During this stage of frostbite, the skin may start to harden and appear waxy and it may begin to feel warm – signaling the onset of tissue damage. When the skin rewarms, blisters filled with fluid or blood may begin to appear within 24 to 36 hours.

  3. Deep frostbite. The third stage of frostbite is the most advanced and will result in permanent damage. As deep frostbite worsens, it will start to affect all layers of the skin and can lead to a loss of all sensation in the affected area. Muscle and joints may no longer function as a result. The skin becomes very hard to the touch and darkens quickly. After rewarming, large blisters may appear within 24 to 48 hours, and the affected area will turn black and hard as the tissue dies.

​Tips to Prevent Frostbite

  1. Avoid exposure to extreme cold temperatures.
  2. If you have to be outdoors in frigid temperatures, be sure to dress adequately and limit the time you're in cold, wet or windy weather.
  3. Watch for the signs of frostbite so you can spot them early on.
  4. Layer your clothing loosely when dressing for cold weather. Loose layers allow body heat to get around.
  5. Make sure to cover your head and ears with a hat and opt for insulated mittens or gloves.
  6. Eating a healthy diet and staying hydrated will reduce your risk for frostbite. 
  7. Stay moving. Continuous movement will help keep the warm blood flowing throughout your body.

​If you suspect that you or someone you know is experiencing frostbite, seek warm shelter immediately and contact your doctor or call 911.​