What is frostbite?
- Frostbite occurs when the skin and tissue underneath the skin freeze.
- Nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes are most commonly affected.
- Frostbite can lead to permanent damage and in severe cases may lead to amputation.
What are the symptoms?
- The affected skin looks white or mottled.
- The skin can feel unusually firm or waxy.
- The person may experience pain, itchiness or numbness.
- People with frostbite can be unaware of their condition as the affected area can be numb and not painful.
- Blisters and swelling may develop.
- Permanent damage to the affected area, depending on the severity of the frostbite.
How does it occur?
Frostbite can happen during prolonged exposure to cold weather at or below 0°C or even after a few minutes in extremely low temperatures.
Who is at risk?
Frostbite can affect anyone, those at higher risk include:
- people over 75 years
- babies and young children
- people with poor circulation or diabetes
- people with chronic physical or mental disabilities
- people who work outdoors
- people who are homeless
- people who are wet from any cause.
How is it prevented?
- Listen to the weather forecast and plan ahead: schedule warm-up breaks for outdoor workers, hold recess and breaks inside, limit the amount of time you spend outdoors.
- Dress warmly in layers (wind-resistant jacket, mittens, boots, hat and scarf).
- Stay dry (wet clothing chills the body rapidly).
- Limit exposure to prolonged or extreme cold weather
- Check frequently for signs of frostbite and get out of the cold at the first sign of redness or pain in any skin area and if you start feeling cold.
- Alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine and certain medications will increase your susceptibility to cold.
- For parents and carers of children, frequently check for wet clothing or footwear as this places the child at risk of a cold injury.
How is it diagnosed?
The diagnosis is usually made based on the person's symptoms and examination of the affected area.
How is it treated?
- Get medical attention as soon as possible.
- Reduce further exposure to cold and wind by seeking shelter and covering up exposed skin.
- Get into a warm room as soon as possible and remove wet clothing.
- Warm the area slowly using body heat or warm water at 40-42°C (do not use hot water).
- Beware that thawing is painful.
- Do not rub or massage (causes more damage).
- Do not use direct heat (can burn the skin).
- Do not walk on frostbitten toes or feet if possible.
- Don't smoke cigarettes as nicotine constricts the blood vessels and may worsen the damage.
- Beware that damage can occur when an area is warmed and then exposed again to cold.
In NSW call 1300 066 055 to talk to your local Public Health Unit.