What are the stages of finger frostbite?

Finger frostbite occurs if exposed to temperatures below 32 degrees F. It is important to note that the fingers are the usual site of frostbite since the blood vessels farthest from the heart constrict during cold weather to reserve blood for the main organs.

Reduced oxygen reaches the fingers; thus, the tissue cells start to die. If not properly treated, it can lead to gangrene.

Mild finger frostbite

In a mild case of finger frostbite, only the outer skin layer freezes. The affected fingers turn whitish as the fluid in the outer layers of the skin crystallizes. Once the fingers warm up, they turn red for several hours. As for the skin, it becomes painful, itchy and tingles as it is thaws and might be swollen.


Seek medical care if sensation and cold do not return to the fingers promptly or if fever or other symptoms arise.

The affected fingers should be warmed in warm water. Finger frostbite can be prevented by covering the hands with gloves or mittens and by removing wet hand coverings right away and either wearing dry gloves or moving out of the cold once the initial signs arise.

Mittens help keep the hands warm better than gloves. You can wear gloves under mittens for added protection.

Advanced phase

In the advanced phase of finger frostbite, the skin turns grayish-white and hardens, feeling numb. The affected areas might blister with clear or milky fluid. Make sure that the blisters do not rupture.

The affected fingers should not be rewarmed and allowed to freeze again. Avoid rubbing the fingers especially with snow.

Once the fingers are warmed, separate the affected fingers from one another by covering each with sterile dressing. Limit movement of the fingers if possible. Seek medical care if sensation and cold do not return to the fingers promptly or if fever or other symptoms arise.

Dead tissue

In severe cases of finger frostbite, it can result to gangrene or dead tissue. Fingers that are severely affected turn black and become infected. The tendons, muscles, nerves, bone and ligaments might be affected.

In some instances, the damage is significant that is requires amputation, but it might take up to 6 weeks to determine the seriousness of the damage.

More Information / Disclaimer

The information posted on this page on finger frostbite is for learning purposes only. Learn to recognize and manage this cold-related ailment by taking a standard first aid course with Vancouver First Aid.


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