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Frostnip Vs. Frostbite: What's the Difference?
ice-branch3 Questions About Frostnip and Frostbite

by Eva F. Briggs, M.D.

Q. What’s the difference between frostbite and frostnip?

A. Frostbite is tissue damage caused by cold. Just as burns are rated according to severity, frostbite also has first, second, and third degree forms.

Frostnip is the mildest level of frostbite.

Q. What are the symptoms of frostbite and frostnip?

A. Frostbite typically affects body parts at the end of the circulatory line: fingers, toes and nose. The following chart shows some of the differences between frostbite levels.

Frostnip Second-degree Frostbite Third-degree Frostbite
Skin looks pale and feels cold, numb and stiff. Skin turns white or blue and feels hard and frozen. Skin turns white, blue or mottled.
The underlying tissues remain warm and flexible. Deeper tissues are unharmed. The tissues beneath the skin feel hard and frozen.
It’s uncomfortable but doesn’t lead to blisters, scarring or permanent damage. The skin blisters after rewarming. Deeper body parts are injured, such as blood vessels, nerves, tendons and muscle.

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Q. What's the treatment for frostbite and frostnip?

A. Treat frostnip by coming in out of the cold. Don’t rub, so as not to injure the fragile skin. As the skin warms, it may turn red and feel painfully prickly.

More severe frostbite demands medical attention as soon as possible.newsletter-graphic

  1. Move the person to a warm place.
  2. Remove wet clothing, as well as jewelry that might constrict injured areas.
  3. If it doesn’t delay getting medical treatment, wrap the affected parts in sterile dressings, carefully separating fingers and toes.
  4. Bring the person to an emergency room.

If it’s impossible to reach medical care promptly, warm the areas by soaking in warm water (104º to 108º Fahrenheit.) Expect severe, burning pain; swelling; and discoloration. Once the area is warm and pliable, apply sterile dressings. To minimize further damage, avoid moving the injured areas.

Prevention is the ideal treatment. Before you venture out, check the weather report. Choose layers of clothing in appropriate fabrics, and keep dry. Don’t forget to accessorize with hats, mittens and scarves.

is a board-certified family physician in Marcellus, N.Y.


Last updated and/or approved: January 2011.
Original article appeared in November/December 2008 former print magazine. Bio current as of that issue. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.
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