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Alternative namesCold exposure - extremities
DefinitionFrostbite is damage to the skin and underlying tissues caused by extreme cold.
ConsiderationsA person with frostbite on the extremities may also be subject to hypothermia (lowered body temperature). Check for hypothermia and treat those symptoms first.
Frostbite is distinguishable by the hard, pale , and cold quality of the skin that has been exposed to the cold for a length of time. The area is likely to lack sensitivity to touch, although there may be an aching pain. As the area thaws, the flesh becomes red and very painful.
Any part of the body may be affected by frostbite; but hands, feet, nose and ears are the most vulnerable. If only the skin and underlying tissues are damaged, recovery may be complete. However, if blood vessels are affected, the damage is permanent and gangrene can follow which may require amputation of the affected part.
Upon warming, it is common to experience intense pain and tingling or burning in the affected area.
Frostbite occurs when the skin and body tissues are exposed to cold temperature for a prolonged period of time. Hands, feet, noses, and ears are most likely to be affected.
SymptomsThe first symptoms are a "pins and needles" sensation followed by numbness . There may be an early throbbing or aching, but later on the affected part becomes insensate (feels like a "block of wood").
Frostbitten skin is hard, pale, cold, and has no feeling. When skin has thawed out, it becomes red and painful (early frostbite). With more severe frostbite, the skin may appear white and numb (tissue has started to freeze).
Very severe frostbite may cause blisters , gangrene (blackened, dead tissue), and damage to deep structures such as tendons, muscles, nerves, and bone.
1. Shelter the victim from the cold and move the victim to a warmer place. Remove any constricting jewelry and wet clothing. Look for signs of hypothermia (lowered body temperature) and treat accordingly.
3. If immediate care is not available, re-warming first aid may be given. Immerse the affected areas in warm (never HOT) water -- or repeatedly apply warm cloths to affected ears, nose, or cheeks -- for 20 to 30 minutes. The recommended water temperature is 104 to 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep circulating the water to aid the warming process. Severe burning pain, swelling , and color changes may occur during warming. Warming is complete when the skin is soft and sensation returns.
Be aware of factors that can contribute to frostbite, such as extreme cold, wet clothes, high winds, and poor circulation. This can be caused by tight clothing or boots, cramped positions, fatigue , certain medications, smoking, alcohol use , or diseases that affect the blood vessels, such as diabetes.
Update Date: 1/29/2004Cherlin Johnson, M.D., Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
Last updated: Tue, 06 Jan 2009 00:20:03 GMT