Which physical findings are characteristic of frostbite?

Updated: Jul 29, 2019
  • Author: Bobak Zonnoor , MD; Chief Editor: Dirk M Elston, MD  more...
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Answer

The initial appearance of frostbite does not accurately predict the eventual extent and depth of tissue damage. Signs and symptoms vary according to severity of the frostbite injury. The hands, feet, ears, and nose are the most commonly affected (see images below).

Frostbite of the hand. Frostbite of the hand.
Frostbite of the foot. Photo courtesy of Kevin P. Frostbite of the foot. Photo courtesy of Kevin P. Kilgore, MD, Department of Emergency Medicine, Regions Hospital.
Frostbite of the ear. Photo courtesy of Kevin P. K Frostbite of the ear. Photo courtesy of Kevin P. Kilgore, MD, Department of Emergency Medicine, Regions Hospital.

Physical examination in patients with superficial frostbite reveals the presence of soft, palpable skin. If a thumbprint can be left in the skin, the patient usually has more viable underlying tissue. Individuals with deeper frostbite effects present with skin that is hard to the touch.

Other signs may include the following:

  • Excessive sweating

  • Joint pain

  • Pallor or blue discoloration

  • Hyperemia

  • Skin necrosis

  • Gangrene


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