7 Frostbite Symptoms You Should Never Ignore

Updated: Oct. 23, 2020

As the peak of winter approaches, getting to know the symptoms of frostbite is essential. Here are the frostbite signs and symptoms that require immediate attention.

person cupping hands in front of snowy background

Red or patchy white skin

Common areas where frostbite occurs are the fingers, toes, nose, ears, and chin, says Leigh Vinocur, MD, an emergency physician and national spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) in Baltimore, Maryland. Make sure to be aware of these areas when looking for frostbite symptoms. If any of these turn red and itchy, that could be a sign of chillblains (a painful skin inflammation in response to the cold), while patches of white or numbness could signal frostnip (an early warning sign of frostbite), says Dr. Vinocur. “Frostnip means permanent damage hasn’t been done yet, but that’s your body telling you that you better get warm,” she adds. (Here are other medical reasons you have rosy cheeks.)

woman scratching at hand

Prickling feeling, like “pins and needles”

If you don’t warm up after frostnip has kicked in, frostbite will enter its early stages. Exposed skin may become numb or start to itch, burn, or sting, says Dr. Vinocur. (Because of the numbness, many people can’t tell when frostbite has set in. To avoid the condition worsening, pay attention to the color and texture of the exposed skin.) Besides frostbite symptoms, here are 15 weird things that happen to your body in the winter.

hands with snowy fingerless gloves clutching a mug

Hard, waxy skin

Prolonged exposure will lead to skin hardening, a frostbite symptom that indicates possible tissue damage. “If your tissue doesn’t feel soft when you push on it, it means you’re freezing the tissue,” says Dr. Vinocur. The area may also start to look shiny or waxy. If you warm up during this intermediate stage of frostbite, also called superficial frostbite, water- or blood-filled blisters may form 24 to 36 hours later. Quickly seek medical attention to ensure there’s no lasting skin damage. Any continued exposure to the cold will lead to the advanced stage of frostbite, which can cause the affected tissue to die. Here are 10 genius solutions to all your winter skin-care problems.

hot water pouring out of faucet with steam

Warm up the right way

As soon as you spot a warning sign of frostbite, head to a warm place immediately, says Dr. Vinocur. Then, soak the affected areas in tepid water for about 30 minutes. “You definitely don’t want super hot water because you’ll damage the skin even more,” says Dr. Vinocur. If possible, have someone else check the water temperature. (Your skin has likely already gone numb, which makes it difficult to judge if the water is too hot.) Be sure to avoid direct heat, such as a heating pad or a lamp, against the affected body parts. As your skin starts to thaw, it could become red and you might feel a tingling sensation, which is just your regular blood flow being restored. Here are 7 tips to keep your hands and feet warm this winter.

adorable toddler with crocheted hat and scarf

Prevent frostbite properly

To keep frostbite from setting in at all, bundle up with loose layers of clothing. The initial layer should keep you dry, the next with materials that insulate, and the top layer should be wind- and waterproof, says Dr. Vinocur. If you start to sweat, unzip your coat a bit to dry off. Just as important: a cozy hat, thick socks, waterproof shoes, insulated gloves, and earmuffs.

a glass of water with ice

Stay hydrated

Dehydration increases the risk of frostbite too, according to Mayo Clinic. Even if you aren’t thirsty, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends drinking a glass of water before heading outside for any activity, especially exercise. And make sure to avoid alcohol as well since it’s dehydrating and can make the body lose heat more quickly, Dr. Vinocur says. Don’t forget to eat before going out into the cold to also keep your body warm.

Man walking with his yellow labrador retriever in winter landscape
Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock

Keep your body moving

If you’re outside for a longer period of time, keep your body moving to help warm your core, says Dr. Vinocur. Try doing jumping jacks or moving your arms to get your blood flowing and help you stay warm. Just don’t overdo it since you’ll need your energy in the cold weather. Now that you know what frostbite symptoms to watch out for, check out these winter skin tips from dermatologists.