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Frostbite Treatment and Prevention: FAQ

An expert offers tips for preventing and treating frostbite.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

When wintry weather settles in, how do you make sure that when Jack Frost nips at your nose you don’t end up with frostbite?

Plan ahead to make sure you're prepared for the winter weather, emergency medicine specialist Thomas Tallman, DO, tells WebMD.

Tallman has seen more than his share of cold-weather injuries as a staff physician at the Cleveland Clinic's Emergency Services Institute and as an on-call doctor at the football games of the Cleveland Browns.

"When you're wet or exposed to high winds, core body temperatures can drop quickly and you can get into trouble pretty fast," he says.

What is frostbite?

Frostbite is literally the freezing of body tissue (usually skin). Fingers, toes, ears, and the nose are the areas most vulnerable to frostbite.

There are three degrees of frostbite, including:

  • Frostnip, which usually affects the face, ears, or fingertips. While the skin may feel numb, frostnip does not lead to permanent tissue damage.
  • Superficial frostbite, in which the outer skin is affected.
  • Deep frostbite, in which the skin and underlying tissue freezes. Permanent damage is possible, depending on how long and how deeply the tissue is frozen.

Frostbite is caused by either prolonged exposure to cold temperatures or shorter exposure to very cold temperatures.

What are the symptoms?

Many people with frostnip or frostbite experience numbness. A "pins and needles" sensation, severe pain, itching, and burning are all common when the affected area is warmed and blood starts flowing again.

Skin may look white, grayish-yellow, or even black with severe frostbite, and it may feel hard, waxy, and numb. Blistering is also common.

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