Frostbite: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

This information is useful for children, adults, and older adults
A family playing in the snow should worry about frostbite

Winter weather brings with it a flurry of outdoor fun—from snowball fights to skiing and sledding. However, when the temperatures plummet, being outdoors for even just a few minutes without proper protection from the elements can put you at risk for developing frostbite. While frostbite is typically a treatable condition, in severe cases, it may result in problems that require an amputation.

Frostbite means the skin—and sometimes the tissues underneath the skin—freezes. That’s because 64 percent of skin consists of water. Just like water turns to ice in freezing temperatures, ice crystals can form inside the cells of skin exposed to cold temperatures for extended periods of time if not properly covered. Circulation issues can increase the risk of frostbite—it usually occurs in peripheral areas of the body located farther from the heart. (To help preserve warmth in the body’s core, where the major organs are located, the vascular system will decrease blood flow [vasoconstriction] to the extremities in the presence of extreme cold.) 

“Young infants are at particular risk for frostbite since their thermoregulation system is not developed completely,” says Aisha Sethi, MD, a Yale Medicine dermatologist, “so they lose body heat from their skin more quickly. Parents have to ensure that areas like the nose, ears, toes and fingertips are adequately protected.”

People of all ages should be on alert for frostbite, though. “The temperature can drop rapidly from daytime to evening and wind chill can be a factor, too,” says Dr. Sethi. At Yale Medicine, we care for patients with a variety of skin conditions and provide advice below on how to prevent and recognize frostbite.