Frostbite: How to Recognize It and What to Do About It

Medically Reviewed By Darragh O'Carroll, MD
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Frostbite occurs when your skin or tissues freeze. It typically occurs in the fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks, and chin. Frostbite can cause a loss of color or feeling in the affected body parts. Treatment for frostbite includes getting to a warmer environment, putting affected skin in warm water, and avoiding rubbing the area. In severe cases, frostbite may lead to permanent tissue damage and amputation. 

Read on to learn more about the degrees, symptoms, causes, and treatments for frostbite.

What are the degrees of frostbite?

A person look at glaciers
Bisual Studio/Stocksy

Experts typically split frostbite into four degrees based on how much damage your skin has sustained:

  • First degree: Your skin may be numb, prickling, red, or peeling.
  • Second degree: Your skin may be red or swollen and start to blister.
  • Third degree: The entire thickness of your skin may be affected, and you may have blood blisters.
  • Fourth degree: Structures deeper than your skin, such as bones or tendons, may be affected.

As the degree of frostbite worsens, the chance that you may have permanent damage or need amputation increases.

What are the causes of frostbite?

Frostbite occurs when exposure to extremely cold temperatures causes parts of your body to freeze. Your body attempts to maintain an optimal internal temperature by shifting blood flow to the central organs of your body, such as the heart and lungs. This shift means that blood flow to your extremities decreases.

In extreme cold, ice crystals form in your cells. This process, as well as the thawing process, can cause permanent damage to your tissues.

What does frostbite look like?

Frostbite

mild-frostbite.jpg

Mild frostbite can cause discolored skin and pain or tingling.

iStockphoto

superficial-frostbite.jpg

Superficial frostbite can cause flushed, swollen skin. Blisters may also be present.

Wikimedia Commons

Third Degree Frostbite to Toes

Severe frostbite can cause the skin to become blackened. Amputation or surgery to remove the damaged or dead tissue may be required.

What are the symptoms of frostbite?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the first symptoms of frostbite typically include pain and redness in the skin. As the frostbite worsens, you may notice:

  • numbness
  • skin that is white, grayish-yellow, or blue on lighter skin
  • firm or waxy skin

Changes in skin coloration due to frostbite may be difficult to see on darker skin tones, so it is important to pay attention to how your skin feels.

As frostbite worsens, your skin may also develop blisters and areas of blackened tissue.

What are the treatments for frostbite?

The first step in treating frostbite is to get to a warm environment. If you cannot get immediate medical treatment, there are some things you should and should not do for frostbite treatment.

Things you should do 

  • If you do not expect to be exposed to cold again, immerse the affected areas in warm water. The water should be comfortable to touch with unaffected areas of your body.
  • Remove any wet or tight clothing.
  • Gently cover any blisters with a clean cloth.

Things you should not do

  • Do not rub the affected skin, as this can cause further damage.
  • Do not walk on frostbitten feet.
  • If you expect to be exposed to cold again, do not attempt to warm the affected skin. Skin that refreezes may be further damaged.
  • Do not use dry heat, such as fire or a hairdryer, to warm the skin. Due to reduced sensation in the affected areas, it can be very easy to burn yourself.

Medical treatment

Doctors typically treat frostbite with warm water baths. They may recommend over-the-counter (OTC) nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to treat pain or prescribe stronger medications. After warming the skin, doctors may need to perform a debridement, which means they will remove any damaged or dead tissue.

In severe cases, doctors may need to amputate affected digits or limbs.

What are some potential complications of frostbite?

Frostbite can cause many complications, including:

In addition, you may have a decreased cold tolerance and an increased risk for infection.

Prolonged exposure to cold and wet conditions can also cause hypothermia. This condition occurs when your body cannot produce enough heat, making your body temperature dangerously low. A low body temperature can make it difficult to think clearly.

Other symptoms of hypothermia include:

What are the risk factors for frostbite?

The risk factors for frostbite may include:

  • being insufficiently dressed for cold weather
  • being exposed to cold for long periods
  • getting wet while in a cold environment
  • having a condition that causes poor circulation
  • taking certain medications that decrease blood flow to the skin
  • having a previous cold-related injury

How can you prevent frostbite?

There are certain steps you can take to prevent frostbite:

  • Protect your extremities: Wear insulated, waterproof boots and thick socks. Make sure you have insulated gloves for your hands. Use a scarf or face mask to protect your face, and wear a warm hat.
  • Dress in loose clothing: Tight clothing can increase the risk of frostbite, while loose layers allow warm air to be trapped close to your body.
  • Stay dry: Wet clothing makes frostbite more likely. If you are in a snowy environment, make sure the snow cannot get into your clothing or footwear.
  • Stay hydrated: Dehydration can increase your risk of frostbite.
  • Know the signs: If you start to feel symptoms of frostbite, get into a warm environment right away.

FAQ

Here are a few commonly asked questions about frostbite.

Does frostbite heal?

Depending on the severity, frostbite can take anywhere from 5–30 days to heal.

What should I do if I think I have frostbite?

If you think you have frostbite, the first thing you should do is get somewhere warm. If you can get immediate medical attention, do so. If not, remove any wet or tight clothing, put the affected areas of your skin in warm water, and do not rub your skin.

Summary

Frostbite occurs when your skin or tissues freeze due to exposure to extreme cold. Symptoms of mild frostbite include redness or pain in the skin. More serious frostbite can result in hard or waxy skin, white or yellow skin on lighter skin tones, and a loss of sensation.

Doctors typically treat frostbite with warm water baths and medications to control pain. In severe cases, they may need to remove damaged or dead tissue or even amputate affected body parts.

You can prevent frostbite by dressing appropriately for cold weather, staying hydrated, and staying dry.

If you have symptoms consistent with frostbite, get somewhere warm and get medical treatment right away.

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Medical Reviewer: Darragh O'Carroll, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 May 23
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