Frostbite Symptoms & Causes

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In-Depth

What is frostbite?

Frostbite is damage to the skin from freezing and is due to prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, usually below 32 degrees F. It occurs when ice crystals form in the skin or deeper tissue. The most common sites for frostbite are the fingers, hands, toes, feet, ears, nose and cheeks.

The severity of frostbite depends on several factors, including temperature, length of exposure, wind-chill factor, dampness and type of clothing worn. Children are more prone to frostbite than adults because they lose heat from their skin faster and do not want to come inside when they're having fun playing outdoors.

What is frostnip?

Frostnip is less severe and affects the tips of the cheeks, ears, nose, fingers and toes. It can usually be treated at home.

When frostnip occurs, a child's skin may be reddened and feel numb or tingly. If this happens, bring your child inside and warm his skin by using warm compresses or immersing the area in warm water (100 to 105 degrees F) until sensation returns. Do not rub or massage your child's skin. If symptoms of frostbite occur or warming the skin does not help, call your child's physician immediately.

What are the symptoms of frostbite?

Each child may experience symptoms differently, but the most common signs of frostbite are:

  • skin that reddens before becoming white, hard, and swollen
  • skin that burns, tingles or becomes numb

Severe frostbite can result in blisters or ulcers forming and may involve deeper tissues.

Prevention of frostbite

To help prevent frostbite, consider the following:

  • Dress your child warmly in layers. Make sure the ears, fingers and toes are well covered.
  • Change clothing if it becomes wet, especially socks and mittens.
  • Bring your child indoors often to warm up and provide a warm snack, soup or drink.
  • Be alert for early signs of frostnip and frostbite, and teach your child what signs he or she should watch for.
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