Ice and Medicine at the end of the earth

4. How long does it take to get frostbite?

Good Question!  Frostbite is a huge concern here in Antarctica.  I have not seen it in clinic yet, but I am sure we will have cases of it during this summer season. 

Frostbite is a cold injury from freezing of the skin.  It is most common in the hands and feet where there is less blood supply.  Nose and cheeks are also commonly involved.  When your body gets cold, blood stays closer to your core organs, leaving your fingers and toes with less warm blood running through them.   Frostbite is more likely when you have prolonged cold exposure. 

How long it takes to get frostbite depends on how you dress, how cold the temperature is and how active you are in the cold.  Wearing multiple layers, loose fitting clothing, mittens and face protection all help prevent frostbite.  Barbara, our flight nurse, heard about your question and passed on the following table from NOAA that shows how long it takes to get frostbite in certain windchill conditions if the skin is not protected:

Frostbite is graded based on how deep the tissue damage is, much like a burn.  You can see blisters, bright red, white or black tissue. 

 Treatment is re-warming and preventing infection.  It takes six weeks or longer to see if the tissue will survive after being frozen.  After a frostbite injury, you are more likely to get a cold injury in the same spot in the future. 

We are taught to travel in pairs and watch out for each other.  If we notice red nose or cheeks we cover them up.  Staying active will also keep blood moving to your hands and feet, helping them stay warm.  The best thing to do is dress for the weather!

4 responses

  1. Anthony hardiman

    I have been to Antarctica and Alaska and never had frost nip or frostbite it is all in the individual to make sure they are warmly dressed and have a cold weather survival kit with them at all times. I have seen people with frostbite and had fingers amputated not a fun thing to go thru

    June 12, 2012 at 1:57 PM

  2. Julie

    I typically prefer to be barefoot. Our winters don’t generally go below 0 F and for short runs outside – to get something from the car, to sweep the snow off the satellite dish – I just go outside and get it done. For longer trips I’ll wear socks and boots. According to your chart I don’t think I’m in any danger of frost bite, although my barefoot snow footprints amuse my friends every winter.

    December 31, 2012 at 11:11 AM

  3. Johnny Palos

    My finger feel numb is that the first sign or am I OK

    December 7, 2013 at 2:01 PM

    • You can have finger numbness without frostbite. Watch it and seek care if it is not improving.

      December 7, 2013 at 2:23 PM

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