You might have experienced signs of frostnip without even knowing that this phenomenon existed. Frostnip happens when the top layer of your skin becomes slightly injured due to ridiculously cold weather. Luckily, it’s not a serious condition. Here’s what you need to know, including signs of frostnip and what to do if you think you have it.
Frostnip is a mild form of frostbite.
“Frostnip is early, reversible cold weather damage to the skin,” Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a New York City–based board-certified dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center, tells SELF.
When your body is exposed to extremely cold weather, your blood vessels constrict, diverting blood away from your skin to maintain your core body temperature, Dr. Zeichner explains. The surface of your skin gets colder, which is what puts you at risk of developing frostnip.
Without proper treatment, frostnip can progress into frostbite, a much more severe cold-weather injury. Frostbite happens when your skin (and sometimes the tissues below your skin) actually freezes after prolonged exposure to cold temperatures or objects such as ice, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) explains. This is as opposed to your skin simply getting too cold, as it does with frostnip. Depending on how extreme it gets, frostbite can cause severe and sometimes permanent skin damage.
How long it takes to develop frostnip depends on the weather conditions.
If you’re dealing with your average cold winter day, it can take a few hours for frostnip to develop, Nicholas Kman, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF. Exposing your skin to the cold for even a couple of hours can lead to frostnip, he explains.
If you’re in freezing temperatures (at or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit) for prolonged periods of time, frostnip can set in much more quickly and also evolve into frostbite at a rapid pace, Dr. Kman says.
The signs of frostnip are pretty subtle.
Cold-weather conditions like frostnip and frostbite are most likely to affect your fingers, toes, ears, cheeks, and chin, according to the Mayo Clinic. Makes sense, since those areas are often exposed even when you’ve bundled up the rest of your body to face the cold.
With that in mind, here are some signs that you may have frostnip, according to the Mayo Clinic. Note that most happen when you’re still in the cold, but others take place after you’ve gotten yourself into a heated environment:
- A cold sensation
- Redness due to skin irritation
- Numbness due to reduced blood flow
- Tingling as your skin warms
- Pain as your skin warms
While the chilly sensation, discoloration, and numbness are in response to the cold temperatures, the pain and tingling happen due to increased blood flow when your affected body part starts to warm up again. This is totally normal, but it can be, well, a pain.
You can treat frostnip on your own.
It all comes down to heating up your skin, Dr. Zeichner says. So, first things first: Get out of the cold if you can. (If not, take steps to protect your exposed skin, like putting your hands in your pockets.)
Once you’re inside, Dr. Zeichner recommends running the affected area under warm water. If you prefer, you can soak the body part in warm water instead.
This might seem counterintuitive, but don’t use hot water to warm up your skin, Dr. Zeichner says. If your skin is numb, you might not notice the water getting too hot, which could lead to a burn. (Same goes for using something like a hair dryer to warm up your skin, Dr. Kman says.) To make sure the water isn’t too hot, the Mayo Clinic recommends testing it with a part of your skin that isn’t experiencing frostnip.
Once your skin is back to its normal color and no longer numb, you can stop applying warm water. This takes about 30 minutes for frostbite, so it should be even speedier for frostnip. “Overall, there should be no permanent damage to your skin,” Dr. Kman says. “You should be just fine.”
If you’ve spent over half an hour rewarming your skin and you’re in a lot of pain, your skin still feels numb, you’ve developed a fever, or your skin is blistering, you may actually have frostbite. See a doctor to be on the safe side. And no matter whether you’ve had frostnip, frostbite, or managed to avoid both entirely, make sure to protect yourself in cold weather so that your skin doesn’t have to suffer.