Frostbite

Description

Frostbite is a direct effect of the cold on health. It is a serious problem that results in the freezing of skin exposed to the cold. Frostbite is characterized by skin that appears waxy and is lighter than usual. The ears, nose, cheeks, fingers and toes are the parts of the body most often affected by frostbite.

You can get frostbite if you stay outside in the cold too long without protecting your skin properly.

Risk of frostbite varies according to the temperature felt, meaning the wind chill index. Weather forecasters use the term “wind chill index” to indicate the temperature felt on skin exposed to the cold. In general, the temperature felt is colder than the actual temperature. 

Wind chill index Risk of frostbite

0 to -9

Low

Wind chill causes a bit of discomfort

-10 to -27

Low

Discomfort

-28 to -39

Moderate

Skin exposed to the cold can freeze within 10 to 30 minutes
(or faster, if the wind is strong)

-40 to -47

High

Skin exposed to the cold can freeze within 5 to 10 minutes
(or faster, if the wind is strong)

-48 to -54

High

Skin exposed to the cold can freeze within 2 to 5 minutes
(or faster, if the wind is strong)

-55 and lower

High

Skin exposed to the cold can freeze in less than 2 minutes

Symptoms

Frostbite affects the skin of the extremities (ears, nose, cheeks, fingers and toes) and other areas directly exposed to the cold, with varying degrees of severity. Symptoms of superficial frostbite, which only affect the skin’s surface, are different from those of severe frostbite.

Superficial frostbite 

Type of frostbite Symptoms

Superficial frostbite

  • Skin becomes numb and tingly
  • Skin reddens and then turns pale
  • Small fluid-filled blisters appear on the skin

Severe frostbite

  • Skin becomes cold, pale and waxy

What to do if you have symptoms

If you have symptoms of frostbite, contact Info-Santé 811.

While waiting for Info-Santé instructions:

  • Shelter yourself from the cold.
  • Remove damp or wet clothing.
  • Warm up by covering yourself in blankets or through skin-to-skin contact with another person.
  • Apply warm water to the frostbitten area. Avoid rubbing your skin.
  • When the frostbitten area warms, you may experience pain or a burning sensation. If you do not have an open wound, you can soothe the pain by applying a skin protection cream, such an aloe vera gel.
  • Do not smoke or drink alcohol to warm yourself up. On the contrary, smoking or drinking alcohol can lower your body temperature even more.

Treatment

You may need to consult a doctor or other health-care professional to treat frostbite, especially if it is severe.

Complications

Frostbite should be treated quickly and properly. If frostbite is left untreated, the affected area may remain sensitive to the cold for many years. In more serious cases, severe frostbite can lead to amputation.

Protection and Prevention

You can take certain precautions to prevent experiencing the effects of cold temperatures. You will find advice on how to protect yourself and your loved ones during periods of extreme cold on the Preventing the Harmful Effects of Cold Temperatures page.

People at Risk

Certain people are more at risk of suffering from the effects of extreme cold:

  • Newborns and infants
  • People aged 65 and over
  • People with reduced mobility
  • People with reduced autonomy
  • People with chronic illnesses, such as:
    • Cardiac or respiratory failure
    • Asthma
    • Diabetes
    • Malnutrition
    • Certain neurological disorders
  • People with mental illness
  • Homeless people
  • People who work outside

Some medications make people more sensitive to the cold. People who take medication for chronic illnesses or other diseases should seek information on the subject from a health-care professional.

Last update: November 8, 2017 11:41 AM

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