Health Care

Signs of Frostbite You Should Never Ignore (and How to Warm Up Properly)

As the peak of winter approaches, getting to know the symptoms of frostbite is essential. While the skin condition varies in severity, it’s easier to contract than you’d think. Here are the frostbite signs and symptoms that require immediate attention.

By Morgan Cutolo

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Red or sore skiniStock/jaim924Common areas where frostbite occurs are the fingers, toes, cheeks, nose, ears, and chin. If any of these turn red, that’s a sign of frostnip, an early warning sign of frostbite. Frostnip doesn’t permanently damage the skin, but it’s a signal to seek warm shelter quickly. Another frostnip symptom might include the skin feeling very cold to the touch.

Prickling feeling, like “pins and needles”iStock/dolgachovIf you don’t warm up after frostnip has kicked in, frostbite will enter its early stages. At that point, exposed skin may become numb or start to itch, burn, or sting. (Because of the numbness, many people can’t tell when frostbite has set in. To avoid the condition worsening, pay attention to the color and texture of the exposed skin.)

Hard, waxy skiniStock/artshotphotoProlonged exposure will lead to the skin hardening, a frostbite symptom that indicates possible tissue damage. The area may also start to look shiny or waxy. If you warm up during this intermediate stage of frostbite, also called superficial frostbite, water- or blood-filled blisters will form. Quickly seek medical attention to ensure there’s no lasting skin damage. Any continued exposure to the cold will lead to the advanced stage of frostbite, which can cause the affected tissue to die. (If you suspect someone has also developed hypothermia, which is a dip in body temperature, use these first aid guidelines for hypothermia.)

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Warm up the right wayiStock/nikkytokAs soon as you spot a warning sign of frostbite, head to a warm place immediately. Then, soak the affected areas in warm water or cover them with a warm washcloth for about 30 minutes. If possible, have someone else check the water temperature. (Your skin has likely already gone numb, which makes it difficult to judge if the water is too hot.) As your skin starts to thaw, it could become red and you might feel a tingling sensation, which is just your regular blood flow being restored.

Prevent frostbite properlyiStock/mkovalevskayaTo keep frostbite from setting in at all, bundle up with loose layers of clothing. The initial layer should keep you dry, the next with materials that insulate, and the top layer should be wind- and waterproof. If you start to sweat, unzip your coat a bit to dry off. Just as important: a cozy hat, thick socks, waterproof shoes, insulated gloves, and earmuffs.

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