Frostbite is an injury caused by freezing of the skin and underlying tissue. The main pathophysiology of frostbite is ischemia. Basically, where there is blood flow there is heat and where there is no blood flow there is no heat to that area. The vasoconstriction and loss of blood flow to the skin predispose the skin to becoming frozen. Heat transfer depends on blood flow and blood flow depends on sympathetic nerve tone. In our extremities, there are only nerves that cause vasoconstriction. Exposure to cold or a drop in the body’s core temperature can induce vasoconstriction from these sympathetic nerves in which decreases the amount of blood flow to the extremities to keep the central aspect of the body warm and central organs well-perfused to help to maintain the body’s core temperature.
Frostbite usually occurs in the apical areas of the skin also called glabrous, which is Latin for smooth because these areas have no hair. These areas include the face, palmar surface of the hand, and the plantar surface of the foot. These areas of the skin are rich in arteriovenous anastomoses, which are low-resistance connections between the small arteries and small veins that supply the peripheral blood flow in the apical regions of the skin. These anastomoses allow the blood to flow into the venous plexus of the skin without passing through capillaries, and play a major role in temperature regulation.
Causative factors of frostbite include inadequate insulation, circulatory compromise, dehydration, moisture, trauma, and immobility. All of these factors in combination can result in frostbite.
The behavioral risk factors include mental illness, alcohol/drug use, fear, apathy, and anxiety. All of these risk factors can contribute to frostbite, generally, from poor self-care.
Frostbite is said to kill twice during its two phases that occur. The first phase is the frozen phase in which ice crystals form in the intracellular compartment at about 29 degrees Fahrenheit. These ice crystals will suck the fluid out of the endothelial cells and become enlarged causing the endothelial cells to lyse from dehydration and interrupt microcirculation. The second phase is the rewarming phase in which the skin thaws and is at risk for microthrombi production and necrosis due to prolonged injury to those endothelial cells.
The usual phase at which we see frostbite in a clinical setting is after thawing, in which the skin looks flushed pink, red, with the appearance of blebs that form one hour to twenty-four hours after thawing. These blebs can rupture spontaneously in 4-10 days and shortly after, a cast-like eschar forms. Then the eschar usually sheds in 21-30 days.
Frostbite is classified based on the depth of tissue damage, from superficial with no tissue damage being mild and deep tissue damage including muscle, bone, or tendon being classified as severe frostbite. The mildest form of frostbite is called frostnip. Frostnip is freezing of the skin but there is no actual freezing injury and doesn’t cause permanent skin damage.
What can you do in the field for Frostbite?
It is important to provide supportive care with IV or PO hydration to prevent dehydration. If the affected area is frozen with no imminent rescue, it is recommended to thaw the area with warm water and try to avoid refreezing. You can give NSAIDs, such as Ibuprofen, 400 mg every 8 hours, or ketorolac 30 mg IV. If the person is at altitude and their oxygen saturation is low you can provide oxygen. However, the individual must be taken to the nearest hospital for further treatment, especially in cases of severe frostbite.
New research studies have been exploring the use of thrombolytics in the treatment of frostbite. Many of the research studies have shown that IV TPA or iloprost may be of benefit to administer in a hospital setting. However, iloprost is not approved for IV use in the United States and other prostacyclins have not been studied for the use of frostbite as of yet. There are current literature and guidelines that have been published for the prevention and treatment of frostbite, however, more research is needed to further support standardized treatment of all patients with frostbite with thrombolytic therapy. Hopefully, these new studies will encourage more research into using thrombolytics and prostacyclins for frostbite.
In the meantime, it would be best to stay warm to prevent frostbite. Tips to help in frostbite prevention include:
- Limit time you’re outdoors in cold, wet, or windy weather. Pay attention to weather forecasts and wind chill readings. In very cold, windy weather, exposed skin can develop frostbite in a matter of minutes.
- Dress in several layers of loose, warm clothing. Air trapped between the layers of clothing acts as insulation against the cold. Wear windproof and waterproof outer garments to protect against wind, snow, and rain. Choose undergarments that wick moisture away from your skin. Change out of wet clothing — particularly gloves, hats, and socks — as soon as possible.
- Wear a hat or headband that fully covers your ears. Heavy woolen or windproof materials make the best headwear for cold protection.
- Wear socks and sock liners that fit well, provide insulation, and avoid moisture. You might also try hand and foot warmers. Be sure the foot warmers don’t make your boots too tight, restricting blood flow.
- Watch for signs of frostbite. Early signs of frostbite include red or pale skin, prickling, and numbness.
- Eat well-balanced meals and stay hydrated. Doing this even before you go out in the cold will help you stay warm.
Lauren Pincomb Apodaca is a second-year Physician Assistant student in the Red Rocks Community College Physician Assistant Program. Originally from Las Cruces, New Mexico, she graduated from New Mexico State University with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and a Bachelor of Art in Chemistry. After obtaining her undergraduate degrees, she was accepted as a Ph.D. fellow in Pharmacology at the University of Minnesota where she conducted research in a biomedical laboratory doing cancer research. She then realized that she wanted to make a difference in people’s lives through hands-on experience rather than working in a laboratory. She went back to New Mexico and received her certification as a nursing assistant and started from the ground up to reach her ultimate goal of being a Physician Assistant. She has enjoyed living in Colorado and the many outdoor activities that Colorado has to offer. Her favorite are kayaking, fishing, and hiking. She is looking forward to graduating soon.
Hill, C. (2017, December 22). Cutaneous Circulation – Arteriovenous Anastomoses. Retrieved September 27, 2020, from https://teachmephysiology.com/cardiovascular-system/special-circulations/cutaneous-circulation/
Frostbite. (2019, March 20). Retrieved September 27, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/frostbite/symptoms-causes/syc-20372656