Plunging temps: Avoid frostbite

Dr. Joseph Zajchowski

With winter temps now reaching well below zero, hypothermia is not the only winter weather-related risk one can run into outdoors.

Freezing temps and howling winds make for prime conditions for frostbite, which is the result of the skin's prolonged exposure to a freezing environment.

"Frostbite exists on a spectrum,"Â said Dr. Joseph Zajchowski an emergency medicine physician at McLaren Lapeer Region. "Deep frostbite is a very serious and irreversible condition, but fortunately symptoms don't suddenly appear. Symptoms will gradually begin to appear and should be considered warning signs for you to quickly get out of the cold.

"It's not just the low temperature or wind, but also factor in how long you will be exposed to the elements when considering your risk for frostbite or any other cold weather-related conditions." 

The frostbite spectrum includes:

Skin may slightly redden, causing minor numbness but no permanent damage. Skin may also sting as it becomes warmer once removed from the cold.

Superficial frostbite
Skin will redden before becoming slightly pale or white. While still in the cold, it may begin to feel warmer, a sign that the condition is progressing and becoming more serious. Once removed from the cold, the skin may sting and even burn as it begins to warm and could lead to fluid-filled blisters.

Deep frostbite
Skin will turn white, blue and/or grey as the cold begins to affect all layers, followed by numbness and loss of sensation before progressing to pain and discomfort. Large blisters will appear. As the skin tissue begins to die away, it will turn black and become hard.

Should you experience any of these symptoms, head indoors immediately. If symptoms are severe, seek treatment at your nearest emergency department.

Follow these prevention practices to best avoid the effects of winter weather-related conditions:

  • Limit time outdoors
  • Dress in several layers
  • Wear mittens (not gloves) and winter hat that fully cover the ears
  • Keep moving, don't sit idle
  • Stay hydrated

Factors that increase the risk of frostbite include:

  • Smoking, alcohol and drug use
  • Previous frostbite
  • Higher altitudes
  • Infants and older adults are more susceptible

To learn more about emergency services at McLaren Lapeer Region, visit