Frostbite is frozen water in body tissues. Like burns, frostbite injuries can be ranked in severity. First-degree frostbite is the mildest. Fourth-degree frostbite is the most severe. It may result in loss of the affected body part.
The most common parts of the body to become frostbitten include:
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Frostbite happens when skin is exposed to freezing temperatures. This can cause the body tissue to freeze. Ice crystals actually form within the frozen body part. Blood cannot flow adequately through the frozen tissue. This causes the frozen tissue to be deprived of blood and oxygen. The combination of freezing and oxygen deprivation causes tissue damage or tissue death. Rewarming may also ultimately lead to tissue death.
Factors that increase your chance for frostbite include:
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Diagnosis is usually based on symptoms and the findings of the physical exam.
Rapid rewarming in a warm (100°F to 110°F [37.8°C to 43.4°C]) water bath is the treatment of choice. Slow rewarming may cause more tissue damage.
If you are stranded with frostbite and unable to get medical help:
If you're able to get medical assistance, treatment may include moving you to a warm place and wrapping you in blankets. The injured body part may be soaked in warm (not hot) water.
Other treatments may include:
If you are diagnosed with frostbite, follow your doctor's instructions .
To help prevent frostbite, dress properly when going outside in cold weather. For example:
American Academy of Family Physicians
National Library of Medicine
About Kids Health
Conn HF, Rakel. Conn’s Current Therapy. 54th ed. Philadelphia, PA: WB Saunders Company; 2002.
Frostbite: first aid. Mayo Clinic website. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/first-aid-frostbite/FA00023. Updated January 2008. Accessed July 21, 2009.
Rosen P, Barkin R, Danzl D, et al. Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 4th ed. St. Louis, MO: Mosby-Year Book; 1998.
Last reviewed September 2012 by Peter Lucas, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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