How to Know When Your Hands Have Frostbite

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You can identify frostbite on your hands if you learn the sensation, appearance and stages of frostbite. Frostbite is frozen skin tissue. Any area of the skin can become frostbitten, but frostbite usually appears on the hands, feet, ears and nose. Skin gets frostbite when it has been exposed to cold for a long period of time. Frostbite can cause severe pain and tissue death, also known as gangrene.

  • Determine how your hands feel. They may feel like they have "pins and needles" or have a tingling sensation. Your hands may also throb, ache or be completely without feeling. These are all symptoms of early frostbite, or frostnip.

  • Look at your hands. Frostnip affects the top tissue layer of the skin, the epidermis. Frostnip makes the skin appear pale. Your hands will feel hard and cold to the touch. If you go inside to warm up, your hands will become red and painful.

  • Know the advanced stages of frostbite. Superficial and deep frostbite occur when the lower skin tissues freeze. Superficial frostbite affects the top two layers of skin--the dermis and epidermis. Deep frostbite freezes all three skin layers: the epidermis, dermis and hypodermis. Ice crystals form in the tissue during the late stages of frostbite because blood flow is restricted. This happens when the cold constricts the blood vessels in the skin, reducing the flow of heat, oxygen and nutrients.

  • Recognize gangrene. Gangrene can occur with deep frostbite. Gangrene is localized tissue death. Blisters and a blackened appearance of the skin are also signs of deep frostbite. These signs can coincide with gangrene or appear before gangrene occurs. Damage to other tissues--like muscles, bones and nerves that lie beneath the skin--can also happen in deep frostbite.

Tips & Warnings

  • Prevent frostbite by keeping extremities warm and dry in cold weather. Don't drink alcohol or smoke if you plan to be exposed to cold weather. These can impair circulation and put you at greater risk for frostbite.
  • Don't follow folklore remedies for the treatment of frostbite. Never rub or massage frostbitten skin with snow or anything else. Rubbing can break up the ice crystals in your skin and cause greater tissue damage. Don't thaw skin that has frostbite if the skin can't be kept warm. When the tissue is refrozen it causes greater harm. Finally, don't apply direct heat--from a hair dryer, fire, radiator or heating pad--as this can burn the tissue that is already injured.

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