What is frostbite?

Being too cold can cause problems. Hypothermia happens when the body temperature drops too low. Frostbite happens when body tissues are damaged after exposure to cold temperatures or cold water. Both hypothermia and frostbite are medical emergencies.

Who is at risk for frostbite?

Anyone that has exposed skin in extremely cold temperatures is at risk. A higher risk of frostbite is likely for people who:

  • Take medicine for high blood pressure.
  • Have diabetes.
  • Smoke.
  • Have peripheral vascular disease, a serious condition involving blood vessels.
  • Have Raynaud’s disease or phenomenon, a condition that involves periodic narrowing (or spasms) in the blood vessels.
  • Have poor circulation.
  • Have not dressed appropriately for cold weather.
  • Are infants.
  • Are elderly.
  • Have been drinking alcohol or taking drugs.

What causes frostbite?

Frostbite is caused by exposure to very cold temperatures or water, or very long exposure to less cold temperatures. Frostbite usually affects fingers, toes, faces, and ears. The cold can affect both the skin and the tissues under the skin, such as muscles, nerves, and joints. Frostbite can be mild, moderate, or severe.

What are the symptoms of frostbite?

  • Numbness
  • A feeling of “pins and needles”
  • Hardening of uncovered skin exposed too long in the cold
  • Redness (mild frostbite)
  • Pale or waxy color and feel (more severe frostbite)
  • Swelling
  • Blisters or scabs
  • Pain

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