Frostbite: You Often Don't Even Realize You Have It

Frostbite is a type of cold emergency that afflicts body parts exposed to the cold. When body tissues freeze, it is called frostbite. This condition is serious because the water in between the body's cells are freezing and swelling causing the destruction of those cells. Severe cases of frostbite can result in the loss of fingers, hands, toes, and feet.

Prevention of Frostbite

  • Dress properly and use wear layers of clothing made out of materials that trap air between the fibers e.g. wool.
  • Keep vulnerable areas such as fingers and toes covered.
  • Stay dry, as moisture, including that from sweat, may freeze if activity stops.
  • Take regular breaks from being outside, and rest.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated as this can help the body maintain its temperature. Hot drinks are preferred over cold ones. Avoid caffeine and alcohol which can hinder the body's heat-producing abilities.

Signs and Symptoms of Frostbite

Depending on the situation, frostbite may occur by itself or along with hypothermia which is the cooling of the whole body rather than just a specific part. The following are signs and symptoms of frostbite:

  • Lack of feeling in the affected area i.e. numbness.
  • Skin that appears waxy or cold to the touch.
  • Skin that is discolored including flushed, white, yellow, or blue.

First Aid for Frostbite

  • Cover the affected area.
  • Don't rub the area and handle it very gently so as not to cause further damage.
  • Warm body part slowly using body heat or by immersing it in water warmed to 105 degrees fahrenheit. Use a thermometer if possible to confirm the water temperature.
  • Keep the frostbitten part in the water until it looks red and feels warm.
  • Bandage the area with a dry, sterile dressing. If the area affected includes fingers or toes, place cotton or gauze between them.
  • Avoid breaking any blisters.
  • Seek medical help as soon as possible.

Frostbite Statistics

Here are some stats from a study conducted by PubMed called Frostbite in the United States:

  • Predominantly Male: Studies show a significant tilt towards males affected by frostbite, with figures ranging from 75.8% to 81.1%.
  • Lower Extremities Most Affected: Frostbite cases heavily impact the lower body, with toes and feet being the most common victims. Statistics range from 47.9% to 66% of reported cases.
  • Lengthy Hospital Stays: Frostbite can be a serious condition requiring extended hospitalization. Studies report an average stay of 9.5 to 10.7 days.
  • Potential for ICU Admission: The severity of frostbite can necessitate ICU care. Statistics show an average of 5.9 to 8.5 days spent in the ICU for frostbite patients.
  • Risk of Amputation: Severe frostbite can lead to tissue death and amputation. While the exact percentage isn't readily available, studies suggest a significant number of frostbite cases require surgery, with amputation as a possible outcome.
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  1. Avatar photo


    It sounds like your daughter froze the skin with the ice pack. Applying hot water is generally not recommended since it can be difficult to tell if the hot water is burning the skin.

    Whether the area has been frozen or burned, you should seek medical help as soon as you can. It is impossible for us to know without seeing the injury whether the damage will heal on its own. We're hoping there's no permanent damage done.

  2. My daughter was icing a sore knee and the area became white and hard. We had her take a hot bath but it is red and feverish this morning and very tender to the touch. What should we do?

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