Frostbite develops once the bodily tissues become frozen. This condition develops if exposed to temperatures below the freezing point of the skin.

Some of the high-risk groups for frostbite include the following:

  • Those who have spent a lot of time outdoors
  • Those under the influence of alcohol
  • Mentally-ill individuals
  • Those who are exhausted or has indications of dehydration
  • The elderly without proper heating, shelter and food

    In superficial frostbite, there is numbness, burning, itching, tingling or cold sensations in the affected regions.

What are the indications?

It is important to note that frostbite is categorized into 2 main categories – superficial and deep.

  • In superficial frostbite, there is numbness, burning, itching, tingling or cold sensations in the affected regions. These areas appear white and frozen but if pressed, they retain some degree of resistance.
  • If frostbite is extensive, there is an initial decrease or diminishing sensation that is later lost entirely. There is swelling and blisters filled with fluid over whitish or yellow-tinged skin that appears wax-like and turns purplish blue as it starts to rewarm. The region is also hardened, lacks resistance if pressed and even appears darkened and dead.
  • There is significant pain as the area rewarms and the flow of blood is restored. A dull constant ache transforms into a throbbing sensation in 2-3 days. This can last for weeks up to months until the last separation of the tissue is completed.
  • Initially, the areas appear misleadingly healthy. Remember that only time can reveal the degree of tissue damage.

How is it diagnosed?

The doctor will gather the history to determine the events of exposure and medical condition prior to the cold injury.

  • The doctor will assess the vital signs including the pulse, temperature, blood pressure and breathing rate to exclude or manage any health issues such as hypothermia or a severe infection.
  • An X-ray or imaging test is performed but might be postponed weeks later until more useful in the treatment.

A good outcome is characterized by normal skin color, intact sensation, blisters with clear fluid, ability to deform the skin using pressure and pinkish skin when thawed. A poor prognosis is indicated by blisters with dark fluid, inability to indent the skin using pressure and skin that turns dark bluish if thawed.

Disclaimer / More Information

The information posted on this page on frostbite is for learning and educational purposes only. To learn to recognize and manage environmental emergencies including frostbite, register for first aid training at one of our training centers located throughout Canada. The training centers are in Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Kelowna, Surrey, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax.


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