Frostbite in the hands and fingers is a painful injury that we can sometimes get from exposing our skin to freezing temperatures for too long. It can happen to people who are stranded in the wilderness or 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? IBJI's Dr. Craig Phillips, orthopedic surgeon with fellowship training in hand and upper extremity surgery, provides tips on symptoms and signs and what to do if you get frostbite in your hands and fingers.

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.

"Frostbite is the actual freezing of the tissues in your hand. Ice crystals will form inside your hands, causing damage between cells."

Three 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. However, as the frostbite progresses, it goes deeper into the skin and starts affecting tissues and can even affect bone. The longer your hands are exposed to the cold, the more damage your hands will sustain.

What to do if you have frostbite in your hands:

If you're experiencing any of the symptoms above (blisters or black skin), head to your local IBJI OrthoAccess immediate care clinic as soon as possible. While awaiting transport, please follow these frostbite tips:

  • Get to a warm place if possible and bundle up in warm, dry clothing.
  • Take ibuprofen or aspirin to help with the pain.
  • Be careful how you rewarm the fingers. While you should get to a warm environment, you should not attempt to rewarm the fingers/hands with a heater, warm/hot water or fire. Never rub the frostbite affected fingers with snow or ice. Any of these "rewarming" tactics may cause further damage. Please leave the rewarming up to the professionals.

Craig Phillips, MD

Craig Phillips, MD is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon with a subspecialty certification in hand and upper extremity surgery, who specializes in treating the hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder. His practice focuses on all conditions affecting the arms with common conditions such as hand and wrist fractures, wrist arthritis, nerve problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome, rotator cuff tears, shoulder arthritis and shoulder replacements.

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