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Watch Out for Signs of Frostbite this Winter

We’re in the thick of winter, now. Button up your overcoat – and beware the signs of frostbite.

At the tail end of a year that has felt like one long, extended blizzard – Maryland received its first actual snowstorm in 2020 the week before Christmas. The good kind – the kind that blankets the ground and hangs heavy in the trees and makes the neighborhood look like a greeting card. Children got a reprieve from virtual learning for a few hours of real fun hurling snowballs and crafting snowmen on the front lawn. But with this nor’easter serving as a portent of possible things to come this winter, it will be important to recognize the distinct signs of frostbite, not only for children – but for anyone who may be spending an extended amount of time outdoors.

Put simply, frostbite causes the skin to freeze. The condition occurs following prolonged exposure to bitter cold, and affects not only the skin, but also the tissue beneath. Severe cases may also damage muscle, blood vessels, and nerves.

It only takes mere minutes for your skin to be affected when temperatures are below freezing. If your skin is wet, or the wind is chilled, the onset can occur even faster.

Individuals with pre-existing medical issues, such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease, may be at higher risk for developing frostbite – as these conditions could diminish a person’s ability to recognize and respond to the cold and impending signs of frostbite, in time. Smokers, too, are more susceptible, because tobacco narrows blood vessels and slows circulation, which expedites frostbite.

Frostbite, however, is not immediate – and its progression typically occurs in three distinct phases.

  • Mild (frostnip): Mild cases of frostbite result in numbness, and possibly pain and tingling, but no lasting damage.
  • Superficial: Skin reddens and turns pale or white. It may feel warm, which is a sign that the condition has worsened. Stinging and swelling may follow, as well as blisters after the skin is rewarmed.
  • Severe (deep): All layers of the skin are affected, including tissue underneath. The skin may turn bluish-gray, and the affected area may lose complete sensation. Joints and muscles may lose functionality. After rewarming the skin, large blisters may form. In most cases of deep frostbite, the exposed area turns black when the affected tissue dies.

Take care to dress accordingly for the winter weather outdoors, and be cognizant of the signs of frostbite:

  • A prickly or numb sensation on skin
  • Discoloration (white, red, gray, or yellowish skin)
  • Pain surrounding the area of exposure.

Severe symptoms require immediate medical addition:

  • Blistering
  • Blackened skin.
  • Stiff or non-functioning joints.

Medical attention should also be sought if frostbite occurs in conjunction with:

  • Dizziness
  • Swelling and redness
  • Discharge
  • Fever

If you expect that you or your child has had exposure to extreme temperatures, take the following steps to prevent worsening conditions:

  • Cover exposed skin. Warm hands under your arms.
  • Seek immediate shelter, and once indoors remove wet clothing and accessories.
  • Cover up with a blanket or warm towel and place hands and feet in warm water. (Note: do not resort to lamps, heating pads, or flames – these measures can inadvertently burn frostbitten skin.)
  • Make an appointment with your doctor, who can treat the affected area to prevent infection.

First Call Medical Center provides compassionate care and a wide range of medical services. We are ready if and when you need us this winter. Call us at  or schedule a telemedicine appointment today!