Frostbite Facts

Recognizing and preventing this winter malady.


Although rare, frostbite can happen in the backyard as well as on a mountaintop -- and cause permanent injury. Frostbite is when blood vessels constrict due to extreme cold and cause tissue damage.

The best defense against it is to layer your winter clothing, says Dr. John Loiselle, associate director of emergency medicine at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia. Exposed hands and feet are the most vulnerable.

Here's what frostbite looks and feels like:

  • First degree: There is a burning sensation with this least-severe frostbite. Skin turns red and stings.
  • Second degree: Skin has a gray or yellow tint and feels tender, or you may have a "pins and needles" sensation.
  • Third degree: In this most-severe case, skin has a waxy white appearance and it feels numb.

If you suspect frostbite, cover the area with a warm, dry cloth. It's even better to place the affected body part in warm water (no hotter than 104 degrees F). Either way, seek medical help immediately.

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