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What is Frostbite?

Frostbite is what happens when the skin – and tissues – of your ears, nose, fingers, or toes freeze in cold temperatures. Though frostbite is easily avoided, it can lead to severe, permanent injury or damage if you don’t understand the signs.


There are three stages of frostbite: frostnip, superficial frostbite, and deep frostbite.

  • Frostnip
    Generally, the first stage of frostbite begins with redness. One may feel a tingling, throbbing, burning, or prickling sensation in the exposed area of skin. Typically, this stage is mild and doesn’t lead to permanent damage.
  • Superficial Frostbite
    From there, the area may begin to look yellow-ish grey or white and waxy. In this intermediate stage, the skin feels too firm and warm to the touch. Blisters might even form when the skin is thawed. Stinging, burning, swelling may also occur upon rewarming.
  • Deep Frostbite
    At its most advanced stage, frostbite is characterized by white or blue-ish grey skin that is very cold to the touch. Joints and muscles may no longer function and larger blisters may form after rewarming. The lost sensation of cold, pain, and discomfort is also common at this stage. Moreover, the affected area turns black and hardens as the tissue dies.
    More often than not, people who miss those beginning signs don’t recognize that they have frostbite at all because as the condition worsens, one loses feeling in the affected area. Because of this, it is crucial to watch for changes in skin color.


Frostbite commonly occurs because someone is exposed to cold-weather conditions. That said, it is also caused by direct contact with ice, frozen metal, and cold liquids. Often, people who experience frostbite have stayed out in the cold too long or were out in the cold in unsuitable clothing.

Risk Factors

There are several factors that increase the risk of frostbite:

  • Alcohol
  • Drug Use
  • Smoking
  • Fear or Panic
  • Mental Illness That Inhibits Judgement
  • Previous Frostbite or Cold Injury
  • Being at High Altitude
  • Being an Infant or Older Adult
  • Having a Medical Condition Affects Your Ability to Feel or Respond to Cold


Frostbite is easily prevented. First, limit your time outdoors in cold, wet, and windy weather. Be aware of weather forecasts and wind chill readings. If you must be outside, layer up! Wear loose, warm clothing, hats and headbands, mittens, and socks that wick moisture. If your clothes get wet, make sure that you change out of them immediately.
Come up with a plan to protect yourself while you’re traveling in the event that you become stranded. Pack an emergency kit with supplies. Lastly, avoid alcohol, stay hydrated, and eat a well-balanced meal to ensure that your body loses heat at an even pace. Most importantly, understanding frostbite is the key to preventing it. Recognizing and understanding the signs can keep you safe from cold weather conditions!