- You should treat frostbite by removing yourself from the cold, taking off wet clothing, and submerging yourself in a bath of warm water.
- The bath should be between 98.6 and 102 degrees Fahrenheit and you should leave the faucet running so that the water can circulate.
- However, if your frostbite is so severe that your skin appears blue and the area feels completely numb, then you should seek emergency medical attention immediately.
- This article was medically reviewed by Jason R. McKnight, MD, MS, a family medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine.
If you’ve been exposed to extra cold temperatures without proper precautions, it’s possible that you could develop frostbite. You’re most likely to develop frostbite in your extremities — like your fingers and toes — or areas of exposed skin like your nose and ears.
Damage from frostbite can potentially be permanent if proper action isn’t taken quickly. Here’s what you need to know about how to recognize and treat frostbite.
What is frostbite? How to recognize the symptoms
Frostbite occurs when your skin, as well as the tissue beneath the skin, freezes as a result of exposure to cold temperatures. This causes blood vessels to contract, which reduces blood and oxygen flow.
Mark Conroy, MD, an emergency medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, the tell-tale symptoms of frostbite include:
- Skin that appears white or pale
- Slight numbness
However, if your skin feels tingly and numb but doesn’t look any different, then you may have a more mild form of frostbite, called frostnip. Frostnip is more common than frostbite. It will likely subside once you get out of the cold environment and it won’t cause any long-term damage.
On the other hand, if your skin turns
bluish-grey and you lose all sensation in the affected areas, then you may have severe frostbite. If this is the case, you should seek emergency medical help immediately.
How to treat frostbite
If your frostbite isn’t severe, you may be able to treat it by yourself, but you should still contact your healthcare provider for direction. In the meantime, here’s what you can do:
- Thaw the frostbite: First, you need to get out of the cold environment. Do not start the following process until you can ensure that you will stay warm and protected to avoid refreezing, says Conroy.
- Remove any wet clothing: You should remove any wet clothing, as keeping it on may keep you cold. Try not to rub the affected area, Conroy says, as frostbitten skin is easily injured and rubbing can make the damage worse.
- Begin rewarming: You can use dry clothes and blankets to warm the body if there is no tub available, but Conroy says the best way to rewarm frostbitten skin is to sit in a bath. The water should be heated to between 98.6 and 102 degrees Fahrenheit and the faucet should be left on so that water can circulate and keep heat well distributed. Typically, you will need to stay in the water for about 20 to 30 minutes.
- Consider medication: If you’re experiencing pain and swelling, you can take an over the counter anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen (Advil) or aspirin, Conroy says. After the rewarming process, you can also apply aloe vera to help with the inflammation and healing of the skin.
Severe frostbite care
If your frostbite is severe, the area may become completely numb and
the skin may turn blue. The skin will feel cold and hard. Additionally, your joints and muscles may start to feel stiff. These are signs that deeper tissue is being affected, and you should certainly seek emergency care.
On top of this, if the frostbite extends up into the hands from the fingers, or into the foot from your toes, Conroy says you should go to the emergency room immediately.
In the hospital, doctors will work quickly to get you rewarmed and assess how much tissue has been damaged. Depending on the severity of the frostbite, you may also be given blood thinners to aid in improving blood flow. This can protect against damage to the tissue that’s at risk, Conroy says. You might receive antibiotics as well if an infection is suspected.
In very serious cases, damaged tissue may need to be removed if the tissue has died or become infected.
The bottom line
It’s important to take action quickly if you or someone else is experiencing frostbite to minimize damage to the tissue. Most of the time, getting out of the cold and into a warm environment — and taking measures to rewarm your body — is all you will need to do. But if the frostbite is more severe, be sure to go to the emergency room so you can get the care you need and prevent long-term complications.