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Frostbite: What It Is, and How to Tell If You Have It

There have been multiple movies over the years, like Everest and Arctic, portraying individuals who are trying to survive in extreme temperatures, and one of the side effects of prolonged exposure to the cold temperatures is frostbite.

The increased risk occurs if there is a windchill factor and if an individual is at a higher altitude. The cold can cause the top layers of skin, and the tissues underneath it, to freeze, because the blood vessels have contracted and blood flow to the area has been affected, and this type of injury is referred to as frostbite. According to WebMD, frostbite commonly affects the extremities like the ears, nose, fingers, and toes because they are further away from the body’s core and have less blood flow.

Those with frostbite may not realize that they have it at first, because the area usually becomes numb. Frostbite occurs in different stages; the first is frostnip, then the second stage is superficial frostbite, and third-degree frostbite is known as deep frostbite. According to Healthline, the stages can be defined as follows:

Frostnip is mild and doesn’t permanently damage the skin. The skin will turn red and can feel cold to touch, if continued exposure to the cold, there may be numbness or tingling. It can be treated by removing yourself from the cold and undergoing rewarming techniques — Mayo Clinic notes that a doctor will rewarm the skin with a warm-water bath for 15 to 30 minutes.

Superficial frostbite will show skin changing to a red color, but also pale or white. The publication notes that ice crystals can form on the skin, and it could feel as if the area is frozen, or the skin could feel warm (which is a serious sign) and will be swollen. Medical treatment is needed immediately to prevent further damage to the skin and tissues.

Although most people with superficial frostbite are expected to recover if treated in time, it is painful and healing may include the presence of blisters, swelling, and a burning or tingling sensation.

Deep frostbite is the most severe form of frostbite and according to Healthline, the “area may have a blue or splotchy look to it.” The area may feel numb, and blood blisters may develop. After rewarming, the skin will appear black and will feel hard. The immediate extent of the damage may be unclear, and following rewarming, the doctors may wait weeks to see if they need to remove the dead tissue or amputate.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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