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Skin Problems & Treatments Health Center

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Frostbite: How to Spot, Treat, and Prevent It

WebMD Feature

Frostbite is a treatable but potentially serious condition that affects the skin. It happens when a body part isn't properly covered when you’re outside in freezing temperatures.

Just like water turns to ice when the temperature drops, your fingers, hands, toes, feet - even your nose and ears -- can freeze. How soon this happens depends on how cold and windy it is outside. It can happen faster than you may think. In severely frigid weather, frostbite can happen in just 5 minutes.

Get to know how to avoid it, the warning signs, and what to do if frostbite sets in.

What Are the Symptoms?

When it's cold out, exposed skin may get red or sore. This is called frostnip, and it’s an early warning sign of frostbite. If this happens, find warm shelter quickly.

Symptoms of frostbite depend on how deep it goes into the body. There are three stages. Early frostbite affects the top layers of the skin. More advanced cases can go all the way through to the muscles and bones.

Early stage

  • Skin turns a pale yellow or white
  • It may itch, sting, burn, or feel like "pins and needles."

Intermediate stage

  • Skin becomes hard
  • It looks shiny or waxy
  • When the skin thaws, blisters filled with fluid or blood form

Advanced stage

  • Skin is very hard and cold to the touch
  • Skin darkens quickly. It may look blue and later turn black

Some people don't know they have frostbite because as it gets worse, you can't feel the area anymore. That's why it’s important to watch for changes in skin color.

How Can I Avoid Getting Frostbite?

These cold-weather clothing tips can help:

Layer your clothing, loosely. Tight clothing raises your risk of frostbite. Instead, choose loose layers that allow body heat to get around.

You want three layers:

  • The first should be of a material that helps keep you dry.
  • The second goes over the first and should be made of an insulator like wool or fleece.
  • The third should be worn on top and should be wind- and waterproof.
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