Those who live in the coldest regions of the planet are likely no strangers to the word ‘frostbite’. Anyone who partakes in winter activities may find themselves in dangerous frostbite-inducing situations. Though modern conveniences lessen exposure to extreme cold, people should still be aware of the stages of frostbite in order to better protect their fingers and toes. Never underestimate the ability of freezing conditions, as frostbite and hypothermia are very real threats when the mercury drops!
Frostbite occurs because the human body is homeostatic, meaning it needs to maintain a constant temperature of at least 98.6 degrees F to function properly. When outside temperatures fall dramatically, the body moves warm blood away from the extremities to the vital organs to ensure continued function, leaving the extremities susceptible to the cold. The body consists mostly of water, so just as water turns to ice in a freezer, the water in the body’s tissue can freeze solid causing what we know as frostbite.
There are three main stages of frostbite: frostnip, superficial frostbite, and deep frostbite. Let’s break each one down:
During frostnip, one of the first stages of frostbite, you will feel the exposed area become cold, start to tingle, and go numb. Sometimes the color of the skin will turn red, and then white. Frostnip doesn’t tend to cause lasting damage as it only lightly freezes the top layers of the skin which are regenerated and replaced fairly quickly.
During superficial frostbite, however, the skin continues to freeze and the deeper tissue regenerating layers may start to be irreversibly affected by the cold. Ice crystals begin to form in the tissue causing skin to feel hard; when the affected area is thawed, swelling and discolored blisters will often occur and can take up to a month to heal.
Deep frostbite is the most dangerous, occurring when deep tissue such as muscles and blood vessels begin to freeze. During this stage of frostbite, nerves can be damaged and tissue may die resulting in a permanent loss of feeling and possible amputation to deter infection. This is the stage when skin turns the well-known black color often associated with frostbite.
Top image via medicinenet.com