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Frostbite: Tips Toward Not Getting Bitten
-- By David Keeling
© 2000, RPK&A, Inc.

Frostbite's one of those things that other people worry about. At least, that's the way it always seemed to me. When I was a kid, my mother was always the person worrying about it. In high school, my friends' parents worried about it. In college... well, in college I'm not sure that anyone was worrying about it, except possibly the ski patrol team.

I hope they were, anyway, because I certainly wasn't.

Aside from the obvious personal responsibility and self care issues implied here, I think it's clear that this type of behavior was (frankly, young man) unacceptable. Why? Because frostbite sucks. Not only is it painful, it's dangerous. You can lose limbs, fingers, toes, and nose-tips because of it. Besides, who wants to watch his or her skin toughen and turn clinically interesting colors?

I didn't, but I probably came close a couple times. I remember one night when I walked from my dorm to the library in ridiculously low temperatures, actually growing enraged at the weather for being so cold. When I finally got there (having braved the frozen tundra that the main quad had become--I think I saw a yak, incidentally), it took 20 minutes for my ears to regain feeling.

No, I didn't wear a hat. Yes, that was dumb. But there are lots of dumb things you can do in the winter months that can have more severe repercussions, like licking a flagpole, or telling your mom that you're bringing your girl- or boyfriend home for the holidays.

Thankfully, frostbite's relatively easy to avoid if you're prepared. So here's your preparation:

What is frostbite?

Frostbite is basically the literal freezing of your body. It begins with the top layers of skin (this is often called "frostnip"), and gradually affects the actual muscle.

What factors lead to frostbite?

Mostly, it just takes very cold temperatures, but the following can contribute or hasten the onset of frostbite:

  • Lower temperatures caused by wind chill
  • Insufficient clothing or insulation
  • Skin exposed to the air
  • Dehydration
  • Wetness
  • Tight clothing
  • Your personal body type (if you're extremely thin, you'll probably lose heat more quickly than bulkier people do)

Note that alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine may also contribute to frostbite; alcohol makes you lose more heat, caffeine can dehydrate you, and nicotine can decrease the blood flow to parts of your body (which means less heat).

What does frostbite look like?

Redness or pain are signs that frostbite may be developing, but you'll know you've definitely got it if you notice any of the following:

  • White, grayish, or yellow skin
  • Skin that feels waxy
  • Numbness

How can I treat frostbite?

If the frostbite's reached a fully developed point (you skin is turning ugly colors and looks waxy, and feels numb), you should seek medical attention. If the problem seems relatively small, however, you should:

  • Get out of the cold. It's fairly obvious that you should get yourself to a warm place as quickly as possible.
  • Do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes.This may increase the damage.
  • Soak the frostbitten area in warm (but not hot) water.This will help warm up the skin without damaging it further. Alternately, use body heat to warm up the affected arae (for example by putting frostbitten fingers in your armpit)
  • Do not rub frostbitten skin with snow or massage it. Again, these actions can damage your already tender flesh.
  • Do not use a heating pad, heat lamp, fireplace, or radiator to warm the area. Because frostbite often numbs you, you might not be able to tell if you're barbecuing (rather than just warming) your skin.

The best way to prevent frostbite, of course, is to dress warmly and be aware of what your body's telling you. Again, if you're worried about what's going on, seek help from a health care provider (they're even better than the ski patrol).


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (U.S.). "Extreme Cold: A Prevention Guide to Promote Your Personal Health and Safety." U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1996.

NASA's Observatorium (U.S.). "Wind Chill Factor: Frostnip and Frostbite." 1999. Accessed October 26, 2000.