3 Signs of Frostbite in Hands

3 Signs of Frostbite in Hands

Frostbite in hands and fingers is a painful injury that we can sometimes get from exposing our skin to freezing temperatures for too long. It happens commonly to people who are stranded outside (for example, if your car breaks down). We've all felt the effects of being outside in the cold weather. Your hands start to feel numb and may even feel painful after a certain point; however, when is it actually frostbite? If your fingers are red, pale and/or numb, you're most likely on your way to suffering from frostbite (this is also called frostnip, which is commonly mistaken for frostbite). If you're experiencing these initial symptoms, find a way to warm your hands as soon as possible. If you do, you likely won't suffer any permanent damage.

Here are 3 signs that you may have frostbite in your hands:

  1. Clear/milky blisters (mild to moderate frostbite)
  2. Blisters that are blue in color or have blood in them (moderate to severe frostbite)
  3. Black skin (severe frostbite)

Frostbite is the actual freezing of the tissues in your hand. Ice crystals will form inside your hands, causing damage between cells. When you first get frostbite (a mild case), it's just the skin that is damaged. As the frostbite progresses, it goes deeper and starts affecting tissues and maybe even bone. The longer your hands are exposed to the cold, the more damage your hand will sustain. People with a history of alcohol or drug abuse, diabetes, previous frostbite, mental illness, a history of becoming dehydrated, a history of smoking, and/or poor nutrition can be more likely to suffer from this injury.

What to do if you have frostbite in hands

If you're experiencing any of the symptoms above (blisters or black skin), head to the emergency room as soon as possible. While awaiting transport to the ER, please follow these tips:

  • Get to a warm place if possible and bundle up in warm, dry clothing. If an individual has been exposed to freezing temperatures long enough to sustain frostbite, he/she may be at risk for hypothermia. Give the individual warm fluids to drink. Hypothermia is more deadly than frostbite and should be attended to first. Signs of hypothermia may include confusion, clumsiness and a slow pulse.
  • Take ibuprofen or aspirin to help with the pain.
  • Do not attempt to rewarm the fingers. While you should get to a warm environment, you should not attempt to warm the fingers with a heater, warm/hot water or fire. Never rub the affected fingers with snow or ice. Any of these "rewarming" tactics may cause further damage. Please leave the rewarming up to the professionals.

How to treat frostbite in hands

As mentioned above, do not attempt to treat frostbite yourself. In the emergency room, your doctor will treat the frostbite through a rewarming process, most likely by placing the fingers in a water bath at a very specific temperature. After the finger(s) have thawed, your doctor will then determine the severity of the frostbite and decide on a treatment plan. Your fingers will likely be swollen. Your doctor may try elevation, narcotics or other medication, hospitalization or even amputation if the finger cannot be saved.

Frostbite in hands, if severe enough, can cause permanent damage. The best way to avoid this is to wear proper clothing when outside in freezing temperatures and always be prepared with warm clothing and/or blankets in your car. Learn more about frostbite.

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