Frostbite occurs when the body is exposed to temperatures below the freezing point of the skin. This leads to freezing of the skin and the underlying tissues. Frostbite can cause the skin to become firm, numb and pale. Smaller parts of the body such as the cheeks, ears, nose, fingers and toes which are usually exposed are most prone to frostbite. The initial stage of frostbite is known as frostnip, which causes some amount of skin irritation, but no permanent damage. Frostbite can be treated with simple measures such as gradually re-warming the skin. But in case frostbite is severe and causes damage to the skin, underlying tissues, muscles and bones, then medical attention is necessary so that further complications such as infection can be prevented.
Symptoms of Frostbite
The common signs and symptoms of frostbite include:
- Numbness in the affected area
- Itchiness or a pricking sensation
- Skin discoloration. The skin may become white, red or grayish in color.
- Hardening of the skin
- Stiffness in the muscles and joints
The areas of the body that are most prone to frostbite include the nose, cheeks, chin, ears, fingers and toes. Since frostbite causes the affected area to become numb, you may not be aware that you are affected.
There are various stages of frostbite.
- Frostnip: This is the first stage in which the skin becomes quite cold and red. If exposure to the cold continues, numbness and a pricking sensation may occur. Once the skin starts becoming warm, there may be pain and tingling. There is no permanent damage to the skin.
- Superficial Frostbite: In this stage the skin turns pale or white. It may still be soft, but the tissues may develop ice crystals. If treatment is received at this stage, the skin surface may appear blotchy. Once the skin is warmed, there may be swelling and burning. Blistering may occur a day or two after the skin is warmed.
- Severe Frostbite: Frostbite can damage all the layers of the skin once it becomes severe. There is a loss of sensation in the area and the muscles and joints may not function anymore. A day later, large blisters may develop and following that the skin may become hard and black. This occurs when the underlying tissue dies.
It is important to seek medical care in case you develop symptoms of superficial or severe frostbite. Also see a doctor in case there is increased swelling, pain and discharge from the affected area, high fever, dizziness or any new symptoms.
Causes of Frostbite
Freezing of the skin and underlying tissues leads to frostbite. The most common frostbite causes are exposure to cold weather or ice. You may be at risk for frostbite in case of the following:
- Wearing clothes that do not offer adequate protection from cold weather
- Leaving the skin uncovered and exposed to cold temperature
- Remaining out in cold weather for long periods of time
- Touching ice, cold packs or metals which are at freezing temperature
Frostbite may occur either because of loss of body heat or due to direct contact with anything cold.
- Loss of Body Heat: Hypothermia occurs when there is severe loss of heat. This can cause the body temperature to drop to dangerous levels. When this happens, there is reduced circulation. The body then tries to protect the vital organs thereby further reducing circulation to the extremities. Due to this drop in circulation, the body temperature reduces further and there is freezing of the tissues.
- Direct Contact with Cold: Exposure to anything that is very cold such as ice can lower the body temperature and lead to freezing of the skin and tissue.
Certain factors can elevate the risk of frostbite:
- Conditions such as diabetes, dehydration and circulatory problems that affect the ability to feel cold.
- Consumption of alcohol
- Psychological illness which may affect the ability to respond to cold
- Previous injuries due to cold
Frostbite occurs more easily in very young children and the elderly as they find it more difficult to produce and maintain body heat.
Remedies for Frostbite
Here are some self-care measures for treatment of frostbite:
- Even though you may feel the urge to expose the affected areas to direct heat such as a heat lamp or fire, avoid doing so because this may further damage the skin and tissue. The frostbitten areas must be slowly re-warmed.
- Exposing the affected area to your own body heat is an effective remedy for frostbite. Place your hands or fingers under your armpits or lie down and curl your body inwards so that warmth is generated.
- Avoid placing affected areas under running water as this will only lead to further heat loss.
- Avoid drinking alcohol as this can cause the body to lose more heat.
- If frostbite has affected your face, place dry, gloved hands over it to generate warmth.
- Nicotine in cigarettes can reduce circulation in the body and lead to further complications. Therefore avoid smoking.
- Wear loose, comfortable clothing which enables proper circulation in the body. This will aid in quicker recovery of the body parts affected by frostbite.
- If you have frostbite on your fingers, remove any jewelry which can hamper circulation and lead to excess swelling.
- Fill up a bottle with hot water and roll it under your feet. This will help to warm up frostbitten toes.
- After undergoing the initial treatment for frostbite, immerse the affected areas in warm water to improve circulation and help in healing.
- Place a hot compress over the affected area for about three minutes and then use a cold compress for half a minute. This alternating treatment will help to ease symptoms of frostbite in affected areas.
- Cayenne pepper contains certain compounds which enhance circulation and alleviates pain that occurs because of frostbite.
- The pulp from aloe vera leaves is greatly beneficial in soothing frostbitten areas. Fresh aloe vera juice may also be used to relieve the symptoms and aid in healing. When done regularly, this treatment helps to heal frostbite in about seven to ten days.
- Gently rub frostbitten areas with the inside of a banana peel.
- Nourishing oils such as olive oil or peppermint oil can also be used to treat areas affected by frostbite.
- The herb horsetail contains silica which helps in the formation of collagen. This is beneficial in repair of skin tissues. Collagen is a type of protein which aids in the regeneration of the skin, underlying tissue, cartilage and bone.
- Rose hip is another beneficial herb which is high in vitamin C content. Vitamin C helps in the growth and regeneration of skin cells.
- Make a paste of mullein flowers, add a small amount of olive oil and apply to the affected areas. This is helpful in alleviating the symptoms of frostbite.
- Apply a layer of warm olive oil to the affected area.
- Sage is known to be effective in curing frostbite. Add a teaspoon of sage in one cup of water and bring to a boil. Drinking this tea for relief from frostbite.
- Dab a small amount of witch hazel to the affected areas.
Diet for Frostbite
There is no specific diet for frostbite, but it is advisable to eat healthy and nutritious foods which will strengthen the body and help to boost the immune system. You can also drink hot ginger tea to improve circulation and healing. Other herbal teas such as peppermint, chamomile, yarrow and sage are also good additions to the diet for frostbite.
Suggestions for Frostbite
Here are some precautionary measures which will help to prevent frostbite:
- Avoid exposure to cold weather as this can lead to frostbite in just a short period of time. Read the weather forecasts before going outdoors. Also protect yourself from wet or windy weather.
- Dress warmly. Wear layers of warm clothing since this will trap air between the layers and serve as insulation against the cold. It is advisable to wear waterproof garments which will also protect your body from rain, snow and wind. Make sure to also wear warm undergarments.
- Protect your ears by wearing warm woolen or windproof hats. You can also wear ear mitts.
- Mittens are more effective than gloves and offer greater protection against the cold.
- Look out for early symptoms of frostbite such as numbness and redness.
- Carry warm clothing and a first-aid kit whenever you are travelling to regions with cold weather.
- Follow a balanced, healthy diet and drink warm drinks like hot chocolate.
- Avoid drinking alcohol if you are going to be outdoors in cold weather. Alcoholic drinks can cause your body to lose heat much faster.
- Avoid creating any friction with frostbitten areas. Rubbing the areas to generate heat can cause further damage to the body tissues.
- Hassi J, Mäkinen TM. Frostbite: occurrence, risk factors and consequences. Int J Circumpolar Health. 2000 Apr;59(2):92-8. Review. PubMed PMID: 10998825.