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White Frostbite on Fingertips

White, Waxy Skin is a Danger Sign of Frostbite

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Updated May 31, 2013

Frostbitten Fingers
(c) Dan Darley
Frostbite is a cold injury to the skin. Literally, frostbite is composed of frozen tissues and fluids. Frostbite damages skin similar to the way a burn works. Frostbite symptoms can be very similar to burns; frostbite causes discoloration, swelling and tissue death (necrosis).

Most textbooks describe frostbite as white and waxy. It's not always like that, but this image shows how frostbite can look. Dan Darley tells me this frostbite showed up after a day in the backcountry. His flickr photo page says he was in Yellowknife, NT, Canada preparing for a trip to the North Pole. In an email, Dan relates how he found the frostbite and how he kept it from getting worse:

"I got the damage on a backcountry trip - it happened in the morning and as we were on the move I didn't take my gloves off until the evening - so didn't do anything specific to warm the fingers. We were out for another couple days before returning to our motel but I managed to keep them warmish whilst out so they didn't get worse, although I was very worried."

One of the most important things Dan did was not to thaw the frostbite while he was still in the wilderness. It's very important not to treat frostbite until there's absolutely no chance it could refreeze. The more the tissues freeze, thaw and freeze again, the more severe the damage gets each time.

Dan's frostbite looked better in a month without treatment, but he says it took several more weeks to feel completely healed. The next picture shows how the frostbite progressed over the first 2 weeks.

Have a frostbite picture you'd like to share? Tell us about your experience, see other readers' frostbite injuries, and submit your own frostbite picture.

Any opinions expressed here are for educational purposes only and are not intended for diagnosis.

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