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Understanding Frostbite

Posted on January 16th, 2012

You don’t have to be at high altitude to suffer from frostbite; it’s just as easy to fall victim to it on a trip to the Alps or even Scotland, and that’s without even thinking about the poles. Hence an understanding of the stages and causes of frostbite is extremely important to its prevention.

Frostbite occurs when exposure to temperatures below 0°C (32°F) damages blood vessels and skin tissue and follows three basic stages. Obviously unprotected areas are the most at risk; typically the ears, nose and cheeks. However fingers and toes are also highly vulnerable.


Generally this is accompanied by a feeling of ‘pins and needles’ with the skin becoming white and soft. Gentle warming should treat the affected area and there is no permanent tissue damage. There are various methods of warming the area, including immersion in warm water and warming under an armpit. The idea is to warm the area slowly and gently.

Superficial Frostbite

This causes a waxy feel to the skin as well as it feeling it feeling numb and frozen. Also blisters are likely.

Deep Frostbite

By far the worst case scenario; where muscles, blood vessels, nerves, tendons and even bone may become frozen. Permanent damage, blood clots and gangrene are all likely to result from this.

Great care should be taken when attempting to treat superficial or deep frost bite as if thawed tissue is allowed to refreeze, more severe and extensive damage is likely. It is often better to wait until the patient can receive proper medical attention. If the area has been thawed, wrap in clean, sterile dressings and seek medical attention as soon as possible. If hypothermia has occurred, treat the hypothermia first. It will kill you sooner!

Protect Yourself

Even if it is not cold, high winds can reduce temperatures to dangerously low levels, making frostbite a real possibility. Also you are more likely to get frostbite if you’re wet, tired, suffer from poor circulation or have had frostbite before, you’re diabetic, a smoker or have consumed alcohol. To prevent frostbite, protect your extremities with hats, gloves, socks, neck gaiters and moisturising creams. And STAY DRY!


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