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Definition

Frostbite is an injury that occurs by freezing of the skin and tissues beneath. The skin turns out to be very cold, red, numb and pale. Frostbite is most frequent on the fingers, nose, ears, cheeks, chin and toes. Bare skin in wintry, stormy climate is most susceptible to frostbite. Frostbite can even occur on skin covered by gloves or other winter clothing.

Symptoms

Signs of frostbite include:

  • Cold skin and a itchiness
  • Numbness
  • Red, white, bluish-white or grayish-yellow skin
  • Stiff or waxy looking skin
  • Ungainliness because of joint and muscle inflexibility
  • Blisters after rewarming, in extreme cases

Because of skin numbness, one may not realize it is a frostbite until somebody else spots it. The stages of frostbite are:

  • Frostnip: Frostnip doesn't damage the skin permanently but causes the skin to turn pale or red and extremely cold. Constant contact leads to prickling and numbness in the area affected. As the skin warms, a feeling of pain and tingling occurs.
  • Superficial Frostbite: The skin may begin to feel warm. If frostbite is treated with rewarming at this phase, the surface of your skin may appear spotty, blue or purple. And you may observe stinging, burning and inflammation. A fluid filled blister may emerge 24- 36 hours after rewarming the skin
  • Deep Frostbite: As the frostbite progresses, it becomes extremely severe affecting all the layers of the skin, including the underlying tissues. Joints or muscles don't function at this stage and large blisters appear 24-48 hours after rewarming the skin. The affected area turns black and solid as the tissues die.

Risk Factors

Factors increase the risk of frostbite:

  • Health conditions influence the capacity to sense or react to cold, such as dehydration, fatigue, diabetes and poor blood flow in the limbs
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Smoking
  • Fear, panic or mental sickness, if it hinders good judgment or hampers your ability to react to cold
  • Prior frostbite or cold damage
  • An infant or older adult, both may have a difficult time generating and sustaining body heat
  • High altitude

Diagnosis

The diagnosis of frostbite is arraived based on the symptoms, skin appearance and extent of exposure to cold.

The doctor may order an X-ray, MRI test, to decide the severity of the condition and to check if the bone or muscle is injured. He may also run tests for hypothermia (a condition that frequently occurs with frostbite)if suspected.

Treatment

First-aid Care

  • Check for hypothermia
  • Safeguarding the skin from futher damage
  • Prevent outdoors during the cold
  • Gently rewarm frostbitten areas
  • Don't thaw already frozen areas
  • Take pain medicine
  • Avoid walking on on frostbitten feet or toes

Medication

  • Rewarming of the skin
  • Pain medicine
  • Protecting the injury
  • Debridement
  • Whirlpool therapy
  • Oral antibiotics
  • Clot-busting drugs
  • Wound therapy
  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy

Surgery

In extreme cases, surgery or amputation may be necessary to get rid of the dead or decaying tissue.

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