Frostbite is damage to skin and tissues from prolonged exposure to below-freezing temperatures. Frostbite severity is based on the depth of tissue injury. The most severe frostbite can lead to permanent damage and/or amputation.
The most common parts of the body to become frostbitten include your fingers, toes, ears, nose, chin, or cheeks.
Exposure to below-freezing temperatures can cause the body tissue to freeze. Ice crystals form within the frozen body part. Blood cannot flow through the frozen tissue. This causes the frozen tissue to be deprived of blood and oxygen. The combination of freezing and oxygen deprivation causes tissue damage or tissue death. Rewarming may also ultimately lead to tissue death.
Factors that may increase your chance of frostbite include:
- Exposure to below-freezing temperatures without adequate covering
- Low body temperature—hypothermia
- Being very young or very old
- History of previous cold weather injury
- High-altitude cold exposure
- Working in below-freezing conditions
- Participating in winter sports or high-altitude sports
- Wearing wet clothing
- Suffering from a condition that affects your mental status such as:
- Inability to move
- Using drugs that cause your blood vessels to become constricted
Medical conditions, such as:
- Thyroid problems
- Disease of the blood vessels
- Raynaud's phenomenon
Early stages of frostbite may cause:
- Weakness or clumsiness with extremities, such as with your hands or feet
- Numbness, stinging, burning, or tingling sensation
- Areas of white skin blended with or next to healthy-looking skin
- Coldness or firmness of tissue
- Pain, especially during the thawing process
- Inflammation may occur during the thawing process
Later stages of frostbite may cause:
- Waxy appearance of the skin
- Blisters that may be filled with clear or bloody fluid
- Color ranging from white to blue, depending on severity
- Joint pain
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Diagnosis is usually based on symptoms and the findings of the physical exam.
Rapid rewarming in a warm (100°F to 110°F [37.8°C to 43.4°C]) water bath is the treatment of choice. Slow rewarming may cause more tissue damage.
If you are stranded with frostbite and unable to get medical help:
- Try to get to a warm location. Wrap yourself in blankets.
- Do not put snow or hot water on the injured area.
- Do not rub affected areas.
- Tuck your hands into your armpits to try to rewarm them.
- If it's available, use warm water (at about 105°F [40°C]) to rewarm your frostbitten area.
- Avoid refreezing the affected area. This can result in more severe injury.
- Walking on frozen feet and toes can cause damage. It may be more important to find shelter.
- Drink warm liquids.
- Avoid alcohol and sedatives.
- Cover the injured area with a clean cloth until you can get medical help.
- Rewarming can be intensely painful. To relieve pain, take an over-the-counter pain medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
If you're able to get medical assistance, treatment may include moving you to a warm place and wrapping you in blankets. The injured body part may be soaked in warm (not hot) water.
Medications used depend on the severity of frostbite. Examples include:
- Antibiotics to treat any bacterial infections
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce inflammation
- Prescription pain medication
- Drugs to prevent blood clots in the first 24 hours
- Vasodilators after 24 hours if needed due to lack of improvement
Other frostbite treatments may include:
- Opening and emptying blisters
- Aloe vera gel or other ointments to relieve inflammation and promote healing
- Elevation of the injured body part above your heart
- A tetanus booster shot
- Hyperbaric oxygen therapy—a special chamber that uses oxygen under greater pressure than normal to help with blood flow and tissue repair
- Surgery—in severe cases, amputation of all or part of the affected body part may be necessary
To help reduce the chance of frostbite:
Dress properly when going outside in cold weather:
- Cover your head, face, hands, and feet adequately.
- Wear layers of clothing.
- Wear materials that provide good insulation, such as wool, polyester, or polypropylene. It should keep moisture away from the skin.
- Wear a waterproof outer layer and stay dry.
- Avoid drinking alcohol when you will be in cold weather.
- Stay hydrated by drinking water.
- Recognize signs of early frostbite, such as numbness, paleness, and difficulty grasping objects with your hands.
- Treat early frostbite promptly with the body heat of a companion by using their abdomen or armpit for warmth.
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Frostbite. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://emergency.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/staysafe/frostbite.asp. Updated December 3, 2012. Accessed August 5, 2015.
Frostbite. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated December 15, 2011. Accessed August 5, 2015.
Frostbite. Nemours Kids Health website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/firstaid_safe/emergencies/frostbite.html. Updated January 2015. Accessed September August 5, 2015.
Last reviewed August 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.