Frostbite is a type of freezing injury, often accompanied by irreversible tissue damage.
Depending upon the depth of tissue damage, frostbite has been classified into various categories, each of which has its own characteristic clinical manifestations. These include:
Commonly known as “frost nip”. Involves only the superficial part of skin. Presents as:
- Painful sensations like pins and needles followed by numbness
- Red or white patches on the skin
It is also called “superficial frost bite”. The skin freezes without the involvement of deeper soft tissues. It manifests as:
- Hardening of skin
- Yellowish, waxy appearance of skin
- Blackening of the skin
Third- and fourth-degree frostbite
All the layers of the skin are involved at this stage. Permanent and irreversible tissue damage occurs. Deeper tissues like muscles, tendons, nerves get involved at this point. If left untreated, gangrene might set in, which is a major indication for amputation of the affected organs. It presents as:
- Loss of sensations as a result of destruction of nerve endings
- Purplish blisters formation
- Formation of a black eschar after about 2 weeks
Entire Body System
A pain specialist may be needed to advise about pain relief. Chilblains [ 3 ] Most idiopathic chilblains resolve spontaneously without treatment. Careful protection from further exposure should be advised. [patient.info]
Abstract After frostbite injury, the phases of rewarming and progressive injury may cause intense pain for the patient. [ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
If stronger pain measures are needed, contact a physician. CONTINUE SCROLLING OR CLICK HERE FOR RELATED ARTICLE Reviewed on 12/12/2018 [medterms.com]
Gangrene of the extremities in the neonatal period is rare. Etiology is not identified in most cases and management is usually conservative. [ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
Surgical interventions Excision of the areas affected by wet gangrene should be done. Surgical amputation of the parts affected by necrosis and gangrene is essential. However, prompt amputation is not recommended. [symptoma.com]
Gangrene may occur. This may require removal of the affected body part (amputation). A person with frostbite on the arms or legs may also have hypothermia (lowered body temperature). Check for hypothermia and treat those symptoms first. [nlm.nih.gov]
Fourth-degree: full thickness and subcutaneous tissue necrosis, also involving muscle and bone with gangrene. A two-tier classification has also been described - superficial or deep frostbite. [patient.info]
You are more likely to develop frostbite if you: Take medicines called beta-blockers Have poor blood supply to the legs Smoke Have diabetes Have Raynaud phenomenon Symptoms of frostbite may include: Pins and needles feeling, followed by numbness Hard, [nlm.nih.gov]
Some conditions may lead to an increased risk for frostbite, such as: Reduced blood circulation from conditions, such as peripheral arterial disease (PAD), diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, or Raynaud phenomenon Constricted blood flow to the extremities [hopkinsmedicine.org]
Impaired thermoregulation in Raynaud’s phenomenon. Angiology. 1995 ;46: 603 - 611. Google Scholar SAGE Journals ISI 11. Haririchi, I, Arvin, A, Vash, JH, Zafarmand, V. Frostbite: incidence and predisposing factors in mountaineers. [doi.org]
People who have Raynaud's phenomenon (a condition where the small blood vessels of the fingers constrict) also have an increased risk of developing frostbite. See separate leaflet called Raynaud's Phenomenon for more details. [patient.info]
[…] gram-negative bacilli, or anaerobes and may present with the following: Increased pain, swelling, redness, and fever Red streaks extending from area Pus discharge Other complications may include the following: Tetanus Tissue loss and gangrene Bacteremia Lymphedema [emedicine.medscape.com]
As the temperature of exposed skin drops, endothelial cell damage can cause localized edema in the extremity. Hyperviscous intravascular flow and vasodilation causes slowing forces, resulting in microthrombi. [ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
Pius II, a 15th century Pope, developed chronic foot pain following frostbite at age 30. Later in life he was progressively disabled by arthritis elsewhere and by colic, which may have been due to kidney stones. [ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
You stop outside of a room to listen to the ambulance report about a homeless patient who has been brought in for foot pain. He is intoxicated and was found asleep in a snow bank. [epmonthly.com]
Blisters form, and prostaglandins and thromboxanes in the blister fluid cause platelet aggregation. Rapid rewarming of the part is now the acceptable practice. [ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
The approach to blisters is debated. [emedicine.com]
This type of injury generally blisters 1-2 days after freezing. The blisters may become hard and blackened. However, they usually look worse than they are. [medterms.com]
ulceration, severe cold sensitivity, and growth plate injury. [emedicine.medscape.com]
The diagnosis of frostbite is made with through the following elements .
- Physical examination
- Tissue biopsy
- Complete blood count (CBC)
- Blood urea nitrogen (BUN)
- Blood electrolytes
- Serum creatinine levels
- Blood glucose levels
- Liver function tests (LFTs)
- Gram staining of cultures obtained from the tissues
- Technetium-99m (99m Tc) scintigraphy
- Bone scans
- Laser Doppler flowmetry
- Magnetic resonance imaging
The management of frostbite consists of the following .
- Immediate removal of the patient from the cold environment.
- Removal of wet, soaked clothing.
- Airway, breathing and circulation of the patient must be checked.
- Thawing for about 20 to 40 minutes for superficial frost bite and for almost an hour in case of deep tissue involvement .
- Splinting or wrapping of the affected part to avoid movements and damage caused by ice crystals
- Heating and rewarming by using circulating water at 40° to 42° C. Rewarming may be passive or active.
- Analgesics such as non-steroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are administered to treat the pain of rewarming and to reduce inflammation.
- Intra-venous alpha blockers (eg. reserpine) can be given for pain relief and edema formation
- Tetanus toxoid is given as prophylaxis to prevent infection with Clostridium tetani.
- Antibiotics are given to prevent secondary infections.
- Low molecular weight heparin is given to prevent venous thrombosis .
- Vasodilators may also be given to improve peripheral blood flow.
- Thrombolytic agents such as streptokinase are used to reduce the risk of the formation of thrombi.
- Excision of the areas affected by wet gangrene should be done.
- Surgical amputation of the parts affected by necrosis and gangrene is essential. However, prompt amputation is not recommended.
- Needle aspiration of blisters can also be done.
- Escharotomy may be needed to lessen the pull of the affected part on the surrounding tissues.
- Routine hydrotherapy for 30 to 45 min at 40° C is done as a rehabilitative measure.
- Skin grafting may be needed.
- Physiotherapy is recommended to enable proper use of the affected limb.
- Psychotherapy is recommended for the patients who undergo amputation of the limb.
- Cosmetic reconstruction of nose, ears, toes that have been amputated may also be done according to the patients’ demands.
Irreversible tissue damage is common after frostbite. The mortality rate related with frost bite is about 11%.
Inadequate blood supply to the extremities when exposed to hypothermic environmental conditions as a result of vasoconstriction leading to inadequate tissue perfusion is the basic cause of frostbite.
Various risk factors associated with frostbite are:
Body responds to hypothermia by directing the flow of blood from extremities towards the core organs like heart and lungs in an effort to maintain body’s homeostasis. This is done by peripheral vasoconstriction. The body parts likely to be exposed are affected the worst. These include earlobes, tip of nose, chin, fingers, knuckles and toes. Decrease in the flow of blood in the peripheral parts decreases the already falling temperature even further.
If exposure to the cold continues, cellular changes start taking place. Ice crystal formation occurs around the cell membrane . Dehydration of cells causes them to shrink and they begin to die as a result of loss of cellular architecture . Capillary endothelium is also affected which causes leakage of blood out of the blood vessels into the tissue spaces. Blood also begins to clot inside the small vessels, initiating the recruitment of the mediators of inflammation which cause further tissue damage.
Frostbite can be prevented by the following measures   .
- The affected part of the body should not be excessively moved as the ice crystals that have formed around the cells can cause further damage.
- The affected part should not be rubbed or massaged for the purpose of warming.
- Education of soldiers who are more susceptible to frostbite.
- While going to high altitudes, appropriate warm clothing must be chosen.
- Clothing should be protected from getting wet.
- Position should be changed every few minutes or so in extremely cold conditions to maintain the circulation.
- Skin should be examined every 20 minutes or so for signs of frost bite.
- Smoking and drinking for the purpose of keeping warm should be avoided in cold weather as it slows the circulation and aggravates the condition.
Frostbite refers to the damage to the tissues caused by prolonged exposure to cold environment . Exposure to minus 10 °C for even a few minutes is enough to cause frostbite. The parts of the body that are normally exposed to the external environment are likely to be affected the most.
The condition goes unnoticed at first as numbness sets in almost immediately. A form of frostbite, the “trench foot”, is common in soldiers. It is however, a preventable condition that can be avoided with proper precautionary measures.
Initially, it is limited to the superficial layer of skin only but later on, it proceeds to deeper tissues. Tingling is followed by numbness. Skin becomes initially red, then white and yellow, ultimately becoming black. Infection of the affected tissues may lead to the need for amputation. That is why frost bite should be given prompt medical attention.
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