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Brr…It’s Cold out There: What is Frostbite? (Part 1)

December 20, 2018

The scene in Mr. Deeds where Longfellow Deeds (played by Adam Sandler) shows his butler his foot—black, numb, and hard as a rock—may have thoroughly scared you about frostbite, or had you saying, “That’s not real, that could never happen to me!” The truth is that it can. Frostbite is defined as the freezing of the skin and underlying tissues. According to the Mayo Clinic, if not treated, frostbite begins to affect the skin and tissue layer by layer. Accompanied by numbness and discomfort, your skin may turn white or bluish gray. Eventually, as the tissue dies, the skin turns black and the tissue becomes hard. As the temperatures continue to drop in the dead of winter, it’s important to understand what frostbite is so that you don’t end up like Mr. Deeds.

What is it?

Frostbite most often targets exposed skin, like the ears, nose, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes. Cold, windy weather makes your skin feel cold, then numb, and eventually hard. As frostbite progresses, you’ll go from red to pale. If the temperatures are cold enough, you can even get frostbite on covered skin. Frostbite can go so far as to damage the muscle and bones, leading to infections and possible nerve damage.

It’s important to note the difference between frostbite and frostnip. Think of frostnip as a mild form of frostbite. It doesn’t cause permanent skin damage, and while frostbite will require medical attention, frostnip can be treated with basic first aid. Cold damage begins with frostnip, then progresses to superficial frostbite, then deep frostbite. Superficial frostbite can be treated with rewarming and may lead to fluid-filled blisters, while deep frostbite affects not just the skin, but tissues underneath. Blisters will form after rewarming, and when the blisters heal, the area will turn black and hard. Seek a doctor immediately if you believe you or someone you’re with has superficial or deep frostbite.

Tune in next month for Part 2, where we’ll discuss frostbite symptoms, prevention, and treatment methods.