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How frostbite affects your extremities
How frostbite affects your extremities

By: Dr. Randal Aaranson


The winter cold can have a devastating effect on your skin, especially sub-freezing wind chill. Frostbite is essentially the freezing of skin and tissue and can occur within a matter of minutes. Frostbite typically affects the skin and tissue of exposed areas, such as your nose, cheeks, ears, hands, and feet.

One of the common misconceptions is that frostbite only affects exposed skin. Even covered extremities, such as hands and feet, can be at risk of developing frostbite because of the relative temperature under gloves and shoes.

Can you get frostbite in St. Louis?

You may wonder, “Doesn’t frostbite only occur in extremely cold places, like the Dakotas and Canada?” Unfortunately, the risk of frostbite can be present in any sub-freezing temperatures. St. Louis’ winter wind chill temperatures often register at below the freezing point. A 10- to 15-minute walk to the train station without the proper winter clothing can put anyone at risk for developing first-stage frostbite, a condition called frostnip.

Symptoms of frostbite

Since frostbite is the freezing of tissue, the initial symptoms are pain and tingling sensations in the vulnerable area. You may have experienced very mild versions of frostbite by standing out in the cold too long and your feet having a slight ache for the first few minutes back inside. If you see a flushing of your skin after coming indoors, it may be a sign of blood rushing back into the danger area. Blistering can also be a sign of frostbite.

As frostbite progresses, the affected area can become pale, hard to the touch, and manifest a waxy appearance. Severe cases of frostbite can cause tissue death, a condition more commonly known as gangrene. Dead tissue turns black within a matter of days as a sign of permanent damage.

Treatment solutions for frostbite

Mild cases of frostbite can often be treated by gently and gradually rewarming the skin. Any blisters that may appear need to be carefully covered to prevent infection. If you’re experiencing mild to severe symptoms of frostbite, seek immediate medical attention.

As always, the best way to treat frostbite is to prevent it in the first place. If you’re exposed to long periods of cold outdoors, wear heavy thermal socks for protection. Remove all wet and cold clothing at the first opportunity.

Frostbite can also affect muscle, bone, and joint tissue. If your bones or joints have been affected by frostbite, our orthopedic specialists can diagnose the extent of your injury. Click here to schedule an appointment with Orthopedic Associates. As always, stay warm and be safe this winter around our beautiful town.





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