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How to Treat Frostbite

Last updated July 22, 2015

Approved by: Maulik P. Purohit MD, MPH

When the temperature dips below freezing, it’s critical to protect your skin from cold-weather health risks. Frostbite occurs when the skin – and sometimes the tissue beneath the skin – freezes due to prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. Depending on how long and how frozen the tissue, frostbite can result in severe, sometimes permanent, damage. To stay warm and prevent frostbite, follow these tips from dermatologists.

With winter’s extreme freezing temperatures and annoying wind chill, frostbite becomes a greater concern when having to stand in the cold for extended periods of time. Prolonged exposure to extremely cold temperatures can lead to flesh freezes commonly in fingers, toes, ears, cheeks, and chin because those areas are farthest from the heart and largely exposed to the cold. In severe cases, frostbite can lead to amputation of affected areas.

Most cases of frostbite only have the skin frozen called frostnip. When the frostbite does deeper, the dead tissue must be handled delicately and requires careful medical attention to minimize further harm. If you have frostbite, here are a few ways to treat the medical condition.

1.     Determine the severity.

  • Not all frostbites are the same. Frostnip is the mildest and least serious form of frostbite, recognized by painful sensations, darker areas of skin, or redness of the skin. The texture of the skin should be retained and respond to pressure without serious numbness.
  • A superficial frostbite is more serious than frostnip and is recognized by numbness, white or grayish-yellow skin, aching or throbbing, and slightly hardened skin. The damage can be reversed with treatment.
  • Severe frostbites are the most serious and dangerous of the frostbites. Severe frostbites come with gray or black dead skin, blisters of the skin, waxy skin texture, and loss of feeling of the affected area.
  • A medical professional should treat all forms of frostbite; however, one should begin treatment to prevent further damage

2.     Begin frostbite treatment.

  • Begin warming the affected area as soon as frostbite is noticed. If outside, tuck your finger and hands into your armpits or keep your gloved hands over your face, if affected, Remove wet clothing as soon as possible.
  • If necessary, take pain medication to ease the suffering. Follow the bottle directions of acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen for pain relief, but do not take aspirin.
  • Fill a bowl of warm water between 100-105 degrees Fahrenheit (37.5 – 40.5 degrees Celsius). DO NOT use hot water. This will burn the skin and add blisters
  • DO NOT use dry heat like space heaters, fireplaces, or heating pads. For the same reason not using hot water, the skin needs gradual heat.
  • As your skin begins to rewarm you should feel burning sensations as the affected area turns pink or red and regains feeling. If the skin swells or blisters then treatment from a doctor is mandatory.
  • To prevent infection, gently wrap your affected area with sterile cotton and gauze once rewarmed. Do not apply too much pressure, because this could damage the affected area further.
  • Prevent further damage by not rubbing the affected area, avoiding too much movement, and not allowing the area to be affected by extreme cold.

There are many ways to prevent frostbite in the future. For more information, read our frostbite to find out how to make this winter season more comfortable.

Frostbite information:


References and Information Sources used for the Article:

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: Jan. 9, 2014
Last updated: July 22, 2015