Frostbite 101

When outside temperatures tumble below the freezing mark and wind chills dip into the negative numbers, frostbite can happen within minutes. According to Dr. Steven Deliduka, board-certified dermatologist with Forefront Dermatology, “As the vessels in your skin constrict due to the cold, they allow less warm blood to the area. It does not need to be below zero outside to develop frostbite symptoms. There are many things that increase the risk of developing signs of frostbite. Some of the common risk factors are a history of poor circulation, certain medications, alcohol consumption, smoking, and skin exposed to the wind and water.”


Signs and Stages of Frostbite

Knowing frostbite symptoms is critical to understanding when you need to turnaround and head back home. According to Dr. Deliduka, “More often than not, your fingers, toes, ears, cheeks, and nose are the first places to be affected. Initial frostbite symptoms commonly include numbness and tingling on your skin. If ignored, your body will continue to move through the three frostbite stages.”


  • Frostbite stage 1: Superficial Frostbite
    This is the 1st degree of frostbite also known as frostnip. The signs of frostbite in this stage may appear as white, waxy, cold skin. After rewarming the affected area with warm water the frostbitten area may turn red and peel like a sunburn.
  • Frostbite stage 2: Partial-thickness Frostbite
    The signs of frostbite in this stage, also known as 2nd-degree frostbite, may appear as numb skin that feels hard to the touch. Your skin may even stay indented after being poked.
  • Frostbite stage 3: Full-thickness Frostbite
    The signs of frostbite in this stage, also known as 3rd-degree frostbite, may appear as white or frozen solid skin tissue. This frostbite stage is considered the most severe case and commonly ends in skin tissue that will turn black and die.


Frostbite Prevention and COVID-19 Masks

The best form of frostbite prevention is dressing appropriately for the current and predicted temperatures. If you must be outside in the cold, it is important to dress defensively in the frigid weather. Make sure to cover up as much skin as possible. Stay alert and monitor how your skin feels. It is important to note that the face masks we have been wearing since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely not warm enough to rely on for frostbite prevention. If you are wearing a mask and plan to be outdoors, choose to wear a thicker mask like a winter balaclava and switch to your standard mask when indoors.


Frostbite Treatment

If you start to feel tingly and numbness, it is important to immediately follow frostbite treatment steps. The first step to treating frostbite is to seek immediate shelter and warmth. Once indoors, remove any wet clothing and gently rewarm your frostbitten skin with lukewarm water. Be cautious to not use hot water, as your numb skin may not be able to recognize how hot the water truly is. Do not rub the area. If you are experiencing frostbite on your feet or toes, try to avoid walking. Doing so can further damage the tissue. If you are experiencing severe frostbite it is important to immediately see your doctor for frostbite treatment. Severe frostbite can result in loss of damage, dead or infected tissue.


Skin Struggles?

If you are struggling skin issues and don’t know where to turn, the board-certified dermatologists at Forefront Dermatology are ready to help. To find the Forefront dermatologist nearest you, visit the locations page today.