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Stages of Frostbite and When to Seek Care

Winters in Philadelphia aren’t for the faint of heart, when the City of Brotherly Love becomes the city of below-freezing temperatures. It’s critical to protect your skin from the cold weather and understand the potential health risks that could occur, especially frostbite.

We’re all familiar with that cold, prickly feeling on our skin as soon as we step outside – but what are the symptoms of frostbite and when do you need to seek medical care? Here’s a surprising fact: spending just 15 minutes (or less) outside – the time it takes to walk to your parked car or shovel your front steps – can cause frostbite.

We’re here to explain the various stages of frostbite (from frostnip to severe frostbite) and when treatment is necessary to prevent permanent damage. Let’s begin with some frostbite facts.

What is frostbite?

Frostbite is an injury caused by freezing of the skin and underlying tissues due to cold exposure.

The symptoms of frostbite vary based on the severity of the condition but typically begin with cold skin and a prickling sensation.

More severe symptoms of frostbite include:

  • Numbness
  • Skin that looks red, white, bluish-white, grayish-yellow, purplish, brown, or ashen (depending on your usual skin color)
  • Hard or waxy-looking skin
  • Swelling
  • Clumsiness due to stiff joints or muscles
  • Blistering after rewarming your skin

Exposed skin in cold and windy weather is most vulnerable to frostbite. Even if you wear a hat, gloves, or other winter gear, frostbite can still occur in a matter of minutes. The worst instances of frostbite happen when someone is unexpectedly out in the cold with little or no protection, which can cause lasting health complications.

Sometimes, you don’t even have to step outside – putting cold objects on your skin, such as ice packs, can also cause frostbite. To prevent this from happening, use an ice pack or any other cold object for just 15 minutes every 1-2 hours. You should also always place a cloth or towel between the ice and your skin.

Do you have a medical condition that affects your ability to feel or respond to cold, such as diabetes or poor blood circulation? You’ll need to take extra caution to avoid frostbite. Young children and the elderly are also vulnerable to frostbite since it’s more difficult for them to retain body heat.

The stages of frostbite

When it comes to frostbite, every minute counts. Get out of the cold immediately if you experience any of these stages.


What it is: Frostnip, the first stage of frostbite, is mild and does not damage your skin.

What it looks and feels like: Frostnip and all other stages of frostbite are most common in your extremities, such as your fingers, toes, nose, or ears.

When you have frostnip, your skin will redden and feel cold to the touch. Your skin may also begin to feel prickly or numb.

Is medical care needed: In most cases, frostnip does not require medical care beyond rewarming.

How it’s treated: To rewarm your skin, soak the affected area in warm (not hot) water for 15-30 minutes. Avoid using a heating pad, which can lead to burns. As your skin begins to warm up, you may feel some pain or tingling. Over-the-counter pain medications (such as ibuprofen) can help ease any discomfort.

Superficial frostbite

What it is: During this stage of frostbite, damage to your skin is beginning to occur.

What it looks and feels like: Your skin will change from a reddish color to a paler or bluish color. Ice crystals may form in your skin, making it harder to the touch. Your skin may also begin to feel warm or swell.

Is medical care needed: The tissues below your skin are still intact, but prompt medical treatment is required to prevent further damage.

How it’s treated: Rewarming should occur as soon as possible – just walk into your nearest vybe location. Your vybe clinician may give you medication for any pain caused by rewarming and wrap the injured area to protect it. If you develop blisters, your vybe clinician can treat those as well.

Many people recover fully from superficial frostbite and new skin forms under any blisters or scabs. However, some are left with lasting pain or numbness in the frostbitten area.

Deep frostbite

What it is: Deep frostbite is the most severe frostbite, affecting both your skin and the delicate tissues that lie beneath.

What it looks and feels like: Your skin will begin to turn dark or splotchy, and you may develop blood-filled blisters. Muscles close to the affected area may not work properly, and your skin may no longer feel sensations like cold or pain.

Is medical care needed: Deep frostbite requires immediate medical attention.

 How it’s treated: As with superficial frostbite, your vybe clinician will rewarm and wrap the area and give you pain medication if necessary. We may also prescribe medication to improve blood flow to the injured area, as very severe cases of frostbite can cause blood clots to develop.

After rewarming, the area will blacken and feel hard due to tissue death. Large blisters may also develop. Surgery may be required to remove the dead tissue – for example, a severely frostbitten toe may need to be amputated. Some people also experience permanent pain, numbness, and sensitivity to cold in the injured area.

vybe is here to help

With the cold temperatures in Philadelphia and how quickly frostbite can take hold, it’s essential to know when to seek medical care. Our urgent care centers are open seven days a week, with extended weekday hours to serve you.

At vybe, you’ll find licensed medical professionals with a wide range of healthcare knowledge. We can quickly diagnose frostbite based on your symptoms and provide the treatment you need.

Whether your rosy cheeks are caused by frostbite or another skin condition, visit your nearest vybe today. Until then, bundle up and stay warm!