Mountaineering & Expeditions

Frostbite and Frostnip | How To Prevent And Cure

Being outdoor users, we need to take care in winter conditions. Here's what you need to know about preventing and curing frostbite

Frostbite is a serious medical condition. It can cause permanent, and severe, damage to the skin and body. It occurs when someone is exposed to extremely cold conditions for extended periods of time. As outdoor enthusiasts, we need to be aware of the symptoms of frostbite. We need to know how to prevent it, and how to cure it if we do start to see the first signs of it while out in the wilderness.

While it’s easy to assume that frostbite only needs to be the concern of mountaineers climbing the highest mountain in the world, skiers or winter hikers, frostbite can affect anyone if they’re ever caught out in the wrong conditions – even when walking to the shops in particularly cold climates.

Before we go any further here, it’s worth noting that we’re not a medical website and are therefore not qualified to diagnose and treat frostbite. If you are showing the symptoms of frostbite and have managed to stumble across this article, then make sure you seek out medical help as soon as possible.

What Is Frostbite?

Frostbite is the formation of ice crystals within the cells of your body. As your body begins to cool (starting with the extremities, as this is the last place your warm blood reaches) the body begins to narrow the blood vessels towards your extremities to ensure your vital organs get as much warm blood as possible.

This restriction in blood flow to the extremities means that they get colder, and this leads to ice crystals forming in the tissues of the exposed extremities. 

Once ice has begun to form, the exposed cells begin to rupture. On top of this, because of the reduction in blood flow, the cells soon become deprived of oxygen – all of which slowly leads to the cells and tissue slowly dying.

Frostbite occurs when skin is exposed to extremely low temperatures, typically around -0.55 degrees centigrade and below.

High altitude mountaineers are incredibly susceptible to frostbite, due to the long exposure to cold conditions.

Frostbite Symptoms

There are three different stages of frostbite, depending on how severe the damage to cells has become. To put it simply, the longer your body is exposed to cold conditions and how cold the conditions are influences how seriously frostbite will affect your body.

First-Degree Frostbite (Frostnip)

The first symptoms of frostbite will be light pins and needles, or throbbing in the affected area. Visibly speaking, your skin might become cold, numb and white. Often called frostnip, this is usually the first warning sign you’ll receive from your body that indicates the onset of frostbite. At this point it’s highly recommended to take preventative measures (see below) to ensure the symptoms don’t deteriorate. 

Second-Degree Frostbite

Prolonged exposure to cold conditions will further worsen the damage caused to your body’s tissue. As frostbite begins to worsen, you’ll notice that the affected area will feel hard and frozen.

Second-degree frostbite only affects the top layers of skin and tissue, but it’s vital to seek urgent medical treatment at this stage to prevent permanent damage. At this point, when you bring your body back into warm conditions you may notice that the skin has become red and blistered.

Third-Degree Frostbite

As the condition reaches its final stage, you’ll notice that the affected skin becomes white or blue and feels cold to the touch. At this point it’s possible that the frostbite has penetrated deep into your body’s tissues and into your tendons and bones.

How To Prevent Frostbite

While it’s easy to say “just chuck a pair of mittens on” when talking about the prevention techniques to avoid frostbite, it’s actually more specific than that, especially for those of us into adventure and action sports.

Let’s dive into the ways we can prevent frostbite.

  • Chuck a pair of mittens on. Seriously, this is an essential for anyone skiing, or winter mountaineering, or any other activity that involves an extremely cold climate. It goes without saying really, but a decent pair of gloves really will protect your hands from cold conditions. If you’re someone with poor circulation, or feel like you get cold hands and feet easily, then be sure to invest in a decent pair of gloves. Your hands will thank you for it.
  • For the skiers out there, we always recommend getting your ski boots fitted at a ski shop. This isn’t only a performance factor, but a good boot fitter will find you the perfect fit, promoting blood flow (and therefore warmth) in your feet which will do wonders in keeping frostbite at bay.
  • Wear a hat. It’s simple, really. Keep those exposed ears covered up, particularly during cold or windy conditions while outside.
  • Bring spare layers. Protect yourself during prolonged periods in cold climates by layering up. Pack a spare hat, gloves and socks if you think any of them might get wet. By doing this, you’ll be able to swap them if they get wet, or add extra layers to your extremities if you’re exceptionally cold.
  • Be aware that drinking alcohol increases your risk of falling asleep in cold conditions and causes a faster loss of heat. We’re specifically talking to the skiers who love a tipple while out on the slopes. Don’t go overboard and you’ll keep frostbite at bay.

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