Early stages of frostbite look just like a burn. There’s swelling, blistering, and redness. As frostbite progresses, the skin turns white or yellow. Eventually, it turns black. The best way to learn how to recognize frostbite is to see pictures of it.

Frostbite is literally caused by frozen tissues and fluids in the skin. As the tissues get colder, the damage leads to inflammation and swelling, just as is the case with a burn. Frostbite patients also complain of discomfort from the frostbite:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Loss of movement
  • Burning sensations

Because the signs and symptoms of frostbite look so similar to the signs of a burn from heat, chemicals, or the sun, it can be easy to confuse these injuries. Here are some common-sense ways to tell if an injury is frostbite or something else:

  • Cold, red, swollen toes after walking in snow for several hours: probable frostbite
  • Cold, blistered fingers after a day on the ski slopes: probable frostbite
  • What looks like a burn forming after icing a twisted ankle: possibly frostbite
  • Red, swollen nose after fishing for crab during December in the Bering Sea: frostbite
  • Can’t feel your feet after climbing Mt. Everest: definitely frostbite

I’m being a little silly, but it’s very important to consider the cold if you develop swelling and redness in your fingers or toes. Some patients completely overlook the possibility of frostbite until it’s too late.

Early frostbite, sometimes called frostnip, is very treatable and often doesn’t result in any permanent damage. Severe frostbite can lead to loss of skin and muscle. Just like burns, frostbite can be categorized as first-, second-, or third-degree frostbite.

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