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Understanding Frostbite -- the Basics

What Is Frostbite?

Frostbite refers to the freezing of body tissue (usually skin) that results when the blood vessels contract, reducing blood flow and oxygen to the affected body parts. 

Normal sensation is lost, and color changes also occur in these tissues. 

Frostbite is most likely to affect body parts that are farther away from the body core and, therefore, have less blood flow. These include your feet, toes, hands, fingers, nose, and ears.

There are three degrees of cold injury: frostnip, superficial frostbite, and deep frostbite. Although children, older people, and those with circulatory problems are at greater risk for frostbite, most cases occur in adults between 30 and 49.

get the basics on frostbite

If you develop frostbite, you may not realize at first that anything is wrong, because the affected area may be numb. With prompt medical attention, most people recover fully from frostbite. However, if severe frostbite occurs, permanent damage is possible depending on how long and how deeply the tissue was frozen. In severe cases, blood flow to the area may stop, and blood vessels, muscles, nerves, tendons, and bones may be permanently damaged. If the frozen tissue dies, the affected area may need to be amputated.

What Causes Frostbite?

Frostbite is usually caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, particularly if they are accompanied by a low wind-chill factor. It may also occur following more brief exposure to very cold temperatures.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on April 05, 2014

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