Severe frostbite is not a common occurrence in the U.S. But if you ignore the risk, it can still happen to you. Learn the signs and symptoms of frostbite to protect yourself and your loved ones.

What is frostbite?

Your body is approximately 75% water. When exposed to freezing temperatures, the water in your cells can freeze and cause ice crystals to form, leading to frostbite. 

Frostbite happens when your body tissue falls to 28 F or below. You’re at risk of frostbite whenever the ambient temperature, including windchill, drops below 32 F.  

The severity of frostbite depends largely on the duration of exposure and the temperature. The colder the temperature, the faster the frostbite sets in. In temperatures with windchills below –10 F, frostbite can occur in just a few minutes. In temperatures with windchills below –25 F, frostbite can set in within a minute.

Exposure to moisture or bare metal can also cause the skin to stick to a surface and tear away if rapidly pulled from the material.

The body parts with the greatest potential for frostbite are your hands, nose, ears, cheeks and toes. Because these parts are not part of your body’s core, their cells and tissues are more susceptible to freezing.

Once your skin drops to 50 F or colder, you can start to lose feeling and not even realize you are suffering from frostbite. So it’s critical to be aware of the conditions that cause frostbite and take precautions.

Signs and symptoms of frostbite

One of the first signs of frostbite is a whitening of the skin and numbing of the exposed body parts. Your skin may also turn blue, indicating that oxygen and circulation are impaired. Unless you can rewarm the affected body parts, you may sustain permanent damage.

Deep frostbite must be treated by a trained medical professional. In severe cases of frostbite, the underlying skin layers where the nerves, live skin and other cells reside are affected. Ice crystals form in the cells and cause permanent and severe damage.

How to treat frostbite

First, keep your body parts covered and dry.

If frostbite is developing, get out of the cold and gradually rewarm the affected body parts. Remove shoes and wet socks and replace them with dry socks. Remove wet gloves and replace them with dry gloves.

Do not attempt to thaw the frozen body parts by placing them under hot running water. This will burn the skin and cause additional swelling and pain that can cut off circulation. Instead, hold a cup of hot coffee or hot water and place the affected body parts near a heater or in your pocket. Do not get too close to the heat source, since frostbitten skin can’t detect hot or cold.

Preventing frostbite

To prevent frostbite, keep your body parts warm and dry, especially your hands, nose, ears, cheeks and toes. When you’re going to be in freezing temperatures, bring an extra pair of socks and gloves and keep your face covered with a scarf.

Frostbite is preventable, but it does require awareness. Look out for signs and symptoms and be prepared whenever you’re going out in the cold.

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