Frostbite: First aid

Frostbite is when skin and underlying tissues freeze after being exposed to very cold temperatures. The areas most likely to be affected are the fingertips, toes, earlobes, cheeks, chin and tip of the nose.

Early signs and symptoms of frostbite are patches of reddish skin and burning pain. The condition then progresses to cold, numb, white or grayish skin that feels stiff or looks waxy.

You can treat mild frostbite (frostnip) yourself. All other frostbite requires medical attention. First-aid steps for frostbite are as follows:

  • Check for hypothermia. Get emergency medical help if you suspect hypothermia. Signs of hypothermia include intense shivering, drowsiness, confusion, fumbling hands and slurred speech.
  • Protect your skin from further damage. If there's any chance the affected areas will freeze again, don't thaw them. If they're already thawed, wrap them up so that they don't refreeze.

    If you're outside, warm frostbitten hands by tucking them into your armpits. Protect your face, nose or ears by covering the area with dry, gloved hands. Don't rub the affected skin with snow or anything else. And don't walk on frostbitten feet or toes if possible.

  • Get out of the cold. Once you're in a warm space, remove wet clothes and wrap up in a warm blanket.
  • Gently rewarm frostbitten areas. Soak frostbitten fingers, toes or other extremities in warm water — 105 to 110 F (about 40 to 43 C). If a thermometer isn't available, test the water by placing an uninjured hand or elbow in it — it should feel very warm, not hot. Soak for 20 to 30 minutes or until the skin becomes its normal color or loses its numbness. For the face or ears, apply a warm, wet washcloth.

    Don't rewarm frostbitten skin with direct heat, such as a stove, heat lamp, fireplace or heating pad. This can cause burns.

  • Drink warm liquids. Tea, coffee, hot chocolate or soup can help warm you from the inside. Don't drink alcohol.
  • Consider pain medicine. If you're in pain, consider an over-the-counter pain reliever.
  • Know what to expect as skin thaws. You'll feel tingling and burning as the skin warms and normal blood flow returns. Take care to not break any blisters that may form on the affected skin. Seek medical help for anything more serious than mild frostbite.

Last Updated Sep 21, 2022

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