Skin Damage from Cold Temperatures
Updated: Aug 13, 2018
It may be 70° and sunny in California, but back home (North Dakota), they’ve hit the negative digits! And with colder temperatures comes a new set of foot issues, many of them skin-related. Check out the list below of the different skin (and sometimes underlying soft tissue) problems that can arise from being exposed to cold temperatures, some of them can even happen with above freezing temps.
Frostnip is less severe and causes superficial and temporary damage to skin. Areas of the body, including the fingers and toes, may turn white or red, and numbness can be present (1,2). To see an example picture of frosting, along with other cold temperature-related skin changes, check out Mayo Clinic's webpage on Frostbite.
Chilblains is a skin condition that presents from extended exposure to decreased (but above freezing) temperatures (1,2). It is characterized by blue-red skin lesions along the extremities, which may become painful and/or even blister (2).
Unlike the previously mentioned skin damages, frostbite typically occurs during freezing temperatures (2). It can cause significant, permanent skin (and underlying structure) damage, resulting in gangrene and amputation of the affected tissue/limb (1,2).
Trench foot occurs when the feet become wet for a prolonged period of time in nonfreezing conditions (2). Body heat is lost more quickly with wet feet, so when this happens, blood flow to the extremities becomes impaired to preserve any residual body heat to more vital organs. This causes the skin to go through color changes and, if blood flow is impaired for too long, permanent damage can result (1).
Treatment & Prevention
Treatment of these conditions depends on the extent, including depth, of injury, but may include thawing/re-warming, topical or oral medications, and local wound care for the more severe cases (1,2). And preventative measures are just as important. These include avoiding exposure to prolonged cool or cold temperatures, along with wet conditions, in addition to avoiding substances that cause blood vessel constriction (e.g. caffeine) and smoking. Lastly, one should make sure proper clothing is worn to avoid exposed skin areas (1,2).
DISCLAIMER: The above information is meant for educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Should you have questions or concerns related to your health, please contact the doctor or your own healthcare professional.
1. Nagpal, B. M., & Sharma, R. (2004). Cold injuries: The chill within. Medical journal, Armed Forces India, 60(2), 165.
2. Raducan, A., & Tiplica, G. S. Cold Injuries–Chilblains and Frostbite.