Frostbite Basics

Prevention That Works

Want to prevent frostbite? Then stay out of the cold. Unfortunately, this is deceptively simple advice, especially for the thousands of people whose work commitments put them at the mercy of the elements -- not to mention the hobbyists who enjoy cold-weather recreation. If you're one of those, then frequent, high-carbohydrate meals and snacks will give your core temperatures a boost, as will warm liquids. And even if you don't plan to spend more than a few minutes outside, it's vital to wear insulated footwear, gloves and a hat. Dress in layers, using a thin, breathable set of thermal underwear for a base. Top this with a loosely fitting middle layer to act as insulation. Finally, add an outer layer to prevent snow, rain or wind from penetrating your clothing. It's important to stay dry as well as warm [source: EHS Today].

You can also lessen your frostbite risk by keeping medical conditions in check. Diabetes, circulatory diseases and thyroid conditions should be closely monitored at all times, but especially when you plan to spend time in the frosty outdoors. Drinking alcohol or taking illegal drugs also increases your odds of cold-weather injury, because you're not as likely to realize you're in danger when you're impaired [source: Doerr]. Plus, alcohol lowers your internal body temperature while simultaneously making you feel warm. That's because taking a sip (or two) of alcohol makes blood rush to the skin's surface, leaving your core to cool to dangerous levels [source: Haynes].

Think a cigarette will warm you up? Quite the opposite. Researchers from Yale University discovered smokers have a greater risk for frostbite. That's because nicotine makes the body respond to cold in slow motion; a smoker's blood simply doesn't flow through the vessels fast enough to warm cold digits [source: BBC News]. It's also a myth that being overweight offers "extra insulation" against the cold. The truth is, too much fat dulls nerve endings that would otherwise tell the body to generate more heat [source: Swank]. You'd be better off to have more muscle than fat because muscle does a better job maintaining body heat -- a fact that probably helped Gardner survive his harrowing mountain ordeal.

If you're stranded, keep moving. Even if you don't leave the location, frequently putting your arms and legs in motion can improve circulation. And, don't fall asleep. If you do, you'll be more vulnerable to cold-weather injuries, like frostbite [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].

Want to know more about how to survive frostbite and other cold-weather conditions? Explore the links below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • American Red Cross. "Frostbite and Hypothermia." March 2007. (May 18, 2010)
  • BBC News. "Smokers at Greater Frostbite Risk." May 1, 2004. (May 15, 2010)
  • Bjerke, H. Scott. "Frostbite." eMedicine. Feb. 25, 2009. (May 13, 2010)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Winter Weather FAQs." (May 15, 2010).
  • Cheng, David. "Frostbite." eMedicine. May 13, 2009. (May 15, 2010)
  • Doerr, Steven. "Frostbite, Chillblains and Trench Foot." MedicineNet. (May 16, 2010)
  • EHS Today. "Working in the Cold." Dec. 11, 2001. (May 15, 2010)
  • Environment Canada. "Wind Chill Hazards." (May 16, 2010).
  • Giesbrecht, Gordon G. and James A. Wilkerson. "Hypothermia, Frostbite and Other Cold Weather Injuries." Mountaineers Books. Oct. 31, 2006.
  • Harirchi, I. et al. "Frostbite: Incidence and Predisposing Factors in Mountaineers." British Journal of Sports Medicine. 39(12): 898-901. December 2005. (May 15, 2010)
  • Haynes, William. "Effects of Alcohol in the Cold." University of Iowa Healthcare. November 2000. (May 17, 2010)
  • Mechem, C. Crawford. "Frostbite." eMedicine. Updated Feb. 5, 2010. (May 13, 2010)
  • Minkel, J.R. "Blood Thinner Rescues Frostbitten Fingers and Toes." Scientific American. June 19, 2007. (May 17, 2010)
  • National Institutes of Health."Frostbite." (May 14, 2010)
  • Rettner, Rachael. "Can a Person Freeze to Death?" LiveScience. Jan. 7, 2010. (May 17, 2010)
  • Sports Illustrated. "No Repeat for Rulon: Gardner Ends Career with Bronze After Stunning Semifinal Loss." Aug. 25, 2004. (May 14, 2010)
  • Stoppler, Melissa Conrad. "Frostbite." (May 18, 2010)
  • Time Magazine. "Medicine: Fighting Frostbite." (May 15, 2010),9171,945510,00.html
  • Speik, Robert. "Notable Mountain Climbing Accidents." (May 15, 2010)
  • Swank, Ann. "When the Weather Outside is Frightful: 10 Tips for Warmer Winter Workouts." Diabetes Health. Feb. 1, 2005. (May 15, 2010)
  • University of Maryland Medical Center. "Frostbite." (May 15, 2010)
  • WCCO."Clot-busting Drug May Improve Frostbite Treatment." June 18, 2007. (May 17, 2010)
  • WebMD. "Frostbite Treatment." (May 17, 2010)