Frostbite and dry skin
Frostbite can cause cracked, dry, peeling skin as it heals.
Frostbite on fingertip
Superficial frostbite, as seen here on the tip of a finger, is most common on the fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin.
Frostbite is an injury caused by freezing of the skin and underlying tissues. In the earliest stage of frostbite, known as frostnip, there is no permanent damage to skin. Symptoms include cold skin and a prickling feeling, followed by numbness and inflamed or discolored skin. As frostbite worsens, skin may become hard or waxy-looking.
Exposed skin in cold, windy weather is most vulnerable to frostbite, but it can affect skin covered by gloves or other clothing. You may not realize you have frostbite until someone else points it out.
You can treat frostnip by rewarming. All other frostbite requires medical attention because it can permanently damage skin, muscle, bone and other tissue.
Stages of frostbite
Skin without cold damage (1) has no change in color or texture. Frostnip (2) is mild frostbite that irritates the skin, causing a change in skin color and a cold feeling followed by numbness. Frostnip doesn't permanently damage the skin and can be treated with first-aid measures. With superficial frostbite (3), the skin feels warm. A fluid-filled blister may appear 12 to 36 hours after rewarming the skin. With deep frostbite (4), you may experience numbness. Joints or muscles may stop working. Large blisters form 24 to 48 hours after rewarming. The tissue turns black and hard as it dies.
Frostnip, a mild form of frostbite, irritates the skin, causing redness and a cold feeling followed by numbness. Frostnip doesn't permanently damage the skin.
Signs and symptoms of frostbite include:
- At first, cold skin and a prickling feeling
- Skin that looks red, white, bluish-white, grayish-yellow, purplish, brown or ashen, depending on the severity of the condition and usual skin color
- Hard or waxy-looking skin
- Clumsiness due to joint and muscle stiffness
- Blistering after rewarming, in severe cases
Frostbite is most common on the fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin. Because of skin numbness, you may not realize you have frostbite until someone points it out. Changes in the color of the affected area might be difficult to see on brown or Black skin.
Frostbite occurs in several stages:
- Frostnip. Frostnip is a mild form of frostbite. Continued cold exposure leads to numbness in the affected area. As your skin warms, you may feel pain and tingling. Frostnip doesn't cause permanent skin damage.
- Superficial frostbite. Superficial frostbite causes slight changes in skin color. The skin may begin to feel warm — a sign of serious skin involvement. If you treat frostbite with rewarming at this stage, the surface of the skin may appear mottled. And you may notice stinging, burning and swelling. A fluid-filled blister may appear 12 to 36 hours after rewarming the skin.
- Deep (severe) frostbite. As frostbite progresses, it affects all layers of the skin as well as the tissues that lie below. The skin turns white or blue-gray and you lose all sensation of cold, pain or discomfort in the area. Joints or muscles may stop working. Large blisters form 24 to 48 hours after rewarming. The tissue turns black and hard as it dies.
When to see a doctor
Seek medical attention for frostbite if you experience:
- Signs and symptoms of superficial or deep frostbite
- Increased pain, swelling, inflammation or discharge in the area that was frostbitten
- New, unexplained symptoms
Seek emergency care for hard, cold, blotchy skin.
Also get emergency medical help if you suspect hypothermia, a condition in which the body loses heat faster than it can be produced. Signs and symptoms of hypothermia include:
- Intense shivering
- Slurred speech
- Drowsiness and loss of coordination
Wrap the person with hypothermia in warm blankets until help arrives.
What you can do in the meantime
While you wait for emergency medical help or a doctor's appointment, take appropriate self-care measures, such as:
- Removing wet clothing
- Protecting the affected area from further cold
- Not walking on frostbitten feet
- Reducing pain with a pain reliever
Frostbite occurs when skin and underlying tissues freeze. The most common cause of frostbite is exposure to cold-weather conditions. But it can also be caused by direct contact with ice, freezing metals or very cold liquids.
Specific conditions that lead to frostbite include:
- Wearing clothing that isn't suitable for the conditions you're in — for example, it doesn't protect against cold, windy or wet weather or it's too tight.
- Staying out in the cold and wind too long. Risk increases as air temperature falls below 5 F (minus 15 C), even with low wind speeds. In wind chill of minus 16.6 F (minus 27 C), frostbite can occur on exposed skin in less than 30 minutes.
The following factors increase the risk of frostbite:
- Medical conditions that affect your ability to feel or respond to cold, such as dehydration, excessive sweating, exhaustion, diabetes and poor blood flow in the limbs
- Alcohol or drug use
- Fear, panic or mental illness that impairs your judgment
- Previous frostbite or cold injury
- Being an infant or older adult, both of whom may have a harder time producing and retaining body heat
- Being at high altitude, where there's less oxygen
Complications of frostbite include:
- 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 problems in children, if frostbite damages a bone's growth plate
- Gangrene — decay and death of tissue resulting from an interruption of blood flow to the affected area — which can result in amputation
Frostbite can be prevented. Here are tips to help you stay safe and warm.
- Limit time outdoors in cold, wet or windy weather. Pay attention to weather forecasts and wind chill readings. In very cold, windy weather, exposed skin can develop frostbite in a matter of minutes.
- Dress in several layers of loose, warm clothing. Air trapped between the layers of clothing acts as insulation against the cold. Wear windproof and waterproof outer garments to protect against wind, snow and rain. Choose undergarments that wick moisture away from the skin. Change out of wet clothing — particularly gloves, hats and socks — as soon as possible.
- Wear a hat or headband that fully covers the ears. Heavy woolen or windproof materials make the best headwear for cold protection.
- Wear mittens rather than gloves. Mittens provide better protection. Or try a thin pair of glove liners made of a wicking material (such as polypropylene) under a pair of heavier gloves or mittens.
- Wear socks and sock liners that fit well, wick moisture and provide insulation. Consider hand and foot warmers as well. Be sure foot warmers don't make boots too tight, restricting blood flow.
- Watch for signs of frostbite. Early signs of frostbite include changes in skin color, prickling and numbness. Seek warm shelter if you notice signs of frostbite.
- Plan to protect yourself. When traveling in cold weather, carry emergency supplies and warm clothing in case you become stranded. If you'll be in remote territory, tell others your route and expected return date.
- Don't drink alcohol if you plan to be outdoors in cold weather. Alcoholic beverages cause the body to lose heat faster.
- Eat well-balanced meals and stay hydrated. Doing this even before you go out in the cold will help you stay warm.
- Keep moving. Exercise can get the blood flowing and help you stay warm, but don't do it to the point of exhaustion.