Extreme cold can cause frostbite, a painful condition in which the skin and underlying tissues freeze. Your face, eyes, fingers, or toes are the most probable areas to suffer frostbite. Besides, untreated frostbite may develop into a serious medical concern.

That’s why it’s crucial to have a firm grasp on the proper procedures for providing first aid for frostbite. If frostbite ever strikes, you and anybody around you will benefit from this knowledge.

This article provides a helpful overview of frostbite, including its causes, symptoms, and treatment options (medical and self-care). We also discuss potential consequences and the importance of prompt frostbite treatment.

Understanding Frostbite

Frostbite occurs when the skin is exposed to temperatures lower than 32 degrees Fahrenheit and does not warm up quickly enough (0 degrees Celsius). Any circumstance that exposes you to the cold for an extended period increases your risk of frostbite.

Image alt text: how to provide first aid for frostbite. Third degree frostbite leg symptoms.

Author credit: By CheckDO – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=127772451

The most typical areas for frostbite are the extremities, like your face, arms, toes, and fingers. And since frostbite causes skin numbness, you might not notice you have it until someone else brings it to your attention. Seeing the affected area’s color change may be more challenging, especially on black or brown skin.

What Causes Frostbites?

Frostbite develops majorly when the skin and the tissue beneath it freezes.

Exposure to cold weather is the leading cause of frostbite. Contact with ice, metals at freezing temperatures, or icy liquids can also lead to this condition.

Instances of high frostbite risk include:

  • When it’s cold outside.
  • When there is a strong wind blowing
  • When you’re at high attitudes

The specific causes of frostbite are:

Inappropriate attire, such as that which does not provide adequate protection from the elements (such as cold, wind, or rain) or that which is overly tight, can be just as dangerous as not wearing any clothing.

Excessive exposure to specific weather elements, especially the wind and cold: As the temperature drops below 5 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 15 degrees Celsius), the danger increases even with calm winds. Skin exposed to wind chill temperatures of negative 16.6 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 27 degrees Celsius) will freeze in under 30 minutes.

Stages of frostbite

Frostbite may fall under different stages depending on the severity. Here are the stages of frostbite and how they impact your health.


This is a moderate form that occurs when exposed to freezing temperatures. Once an area has been exposed to cold for an extended period, feelings will fade and eventually disappear.

You can experience a burning sensation and tingling when your skin heats up. Frostnip is safe for the skin and won’t leave any lasting effects.

Superficial frostbite

Slight discoloration of the skin is a common side effect of mild frostbite. Feelings of heat on the skin can indicate extensive skin involvement. Rewarming the skin at this stage of frostbite treatment may leave the skin looking mottled.

Pain, swelling, and stinging are also possible reactions. After between 12-36 hours of the skin being rewarmed, a liquid blister may form.

Severe Frostbite

As frostbite worsens, it destroys the outer layer of skin, the dermal layer, and the underlying structures. The affected area turns white or bluish-gray, and the person no longer feels pain, cold, or discomfort.

Muscles or joints may become ineffective. Prominent blisters appear after being warmed back up, usually between 24 and 48 hours later. Once the tissue dries up and goes black, it has passed away.

How Do You Know You Have Frostbite?

Mild frostbite can cause the skin to turn either reddish or whitish. In the advanced stages of frostbite, your skin may develop blisters and turn black. Skin that has been severely frostbitten often feels very firm.

The following other symptoms are also possible:

  • Numbness
  • A prickling sensation and cold skin.
  • Having skin that looks hard or waxy
  • Physical immobility leading to clumsiness
  • Purple, grayish-yellow, brown, or ashen skin depending on the severity of the condition

Who Could Be In Danger of this Condition?

Those who engage in outdoor recreation activities in cold weather, those who reside in or visit cold climates, and individuals with a history of frostbite are all at the most significant risk.

Other risk factors for developing frostbite include:

  • Being exposed to strong winds
  • Having poor circulation
  • Being confined while wearing tight garments or boots or being overly tired.
  • Smoking, drinking alcohol and being under the influence of drugs
  • Cold-related injuries or frostbite history
  • Having a low oxygen saturation due to high altitude
  • Having a lower body temperature or having difficulty keeping warm, especially for babies or the elderly person

Medical attention and when it’s necessary to see the doctor

You should seek medical attention or see a doctor when you experience the following:

  • Fever
  • Symptoms and causes of frostbite, whether light or severe
  • Emerging or mysterious symptoms
  • Amplification of frostbite-related symptoms such as pain, edema, inflammation, and discharge

Moreover, seek immediate medical attention if you think you or someone else is suffering from hypothermia, where the body’s heat loss is faster than the production rate.

Watch out for the following signs and symptoms of hypothermia:

  • Extreme chills
  • Speech or fluency issues
  • Sleepiness and inability to maintain balance and focus

Use warm blankets to wrap the hypothermic victim until medical assistance comes.

Diagnosis a

Frostbite can be diagnosed by observing the symptoms, examining the skin, and asking the patient about any recent outside activities that might have exposed them to cold temperatures.

Therefore, to assess the frostbite level and rule out any underlying bone or muscle damage, your doctor may recommend imaging tests like X-rays or a bone scan/MRI.

How to Treat Frostbite

Frostnip, a mild form of frostbite, responds well to first-aid treatment at home. After initial care and evaluation for hypothermia, medical therapy for frostbite may include rewarming, medicine, surgery, wound care, and other therapies, if necessary.

Here are some strategies to help manage frostbite:

Rewarming the skin for it to return to average skin temperature. Your physician might suggest you use a warm water bath to rewarm the skin for 15 – 30 minutes if it hasn’t been done earlier. Possible softening of the skin. When the injured region feels warm again, you may be instructed to move it carefully.

OTC drugs for ache relief. Your doctor may prescribe pain medication to help you get through the discomfort of rewarming.

Repair through the surgical removal of diseased or injured tissue (debridement). All damaged, dead, or contaminated skin cells must be removed for frostbite to heal correctly. Your physician might suggest waiting 1–3 months before removing damaged tissue to improve the ability to tell the difference between excellent and dead tissue.

Clot-busting or Anticoagulants Medications. Tissue plasminogen activator (TPA) and other thrombolytic drugs may be injected into a vein to restore blood flow. TPA has been shown to reduce the likelihood of amputation in studies involving persons with acute frostbite. However, these medications should be administered cautiously and no later than 24 hours after exposure due to the risk of severe bleeding.

Therapies like whirlpool bathing and physical rehabilitation. Hydrotherapy, or a soak in a whirlpool bath, helps the body heal by maintaining a clean environment and removing dead skin and tissue. Lightly relocating the sore spot may be recommended.

Medications that can combat infections. Your healthcare providers may recommend taking oral antibiotics, especially when you have infected skin blisters.

Covering the wound: Your doctor may recommend loosely wrapping the affected region with sterile dressings like sheets or towels. The specialist may also gently separate your toes or fingers to prevent further damage as they thaw. As an additional measure, try putting some pillows under the area you want to elevate to prevent more swelling.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy: Treatment involving breathing pure oxygen at high pressures. Breathing 100% oxygen in a pressure chamber is the basis of hyperbaric oxygen therapy. After receiving this treatment, some individuals report feeling better. On the other hand, additional research is required.

Surgery. Extreme frostbite victims may eventually require an amputation or surgical removal of diseased or dead tissue.

Are There At-Home Treatment Plans for Frostbite?

Yes! If you experience frostnip or frostbite, visit a doctor immediately. Even if you can’t get to the hospital immediately because you are in a remote place, you can still take measures to cure frostbite at home and minimize the damage to your skin and organs.

Keeping warm is your top concern at the moment. Being warm and then freezing again can cause more severe skin damage, so you should get inside as soon as possible.

Care for frostbitten skin with these tried-and-true home remedies:

Follow your doctor’s orders: If your doctor has recommended antibiotics or painkillers, take them as directed. Relatively mild instances of frostbite may benefit from using an over-the-counter pain medication to alleviate discomfort and swelling.

Apply aloe Vera or lotion: Some persons who have suffered from warmed superficial frostbite find relief by applying cream or even aloe vera gel to the affected region multiple times daily.

Move out of the outside chilly air or wind: If there’s a chance the damaged area can refreeze, resist the urge to thaw or reheat it. Once inside, you can take off your damp clothing. Get some kind of urgent medical attention.

You must also:

  • Avoid rubbing or directly heating the affected region.
  • If blisters form, avoid popping them. In this way, blisters are similar to bandages. Do not try to pop blisters.
  • Loosen any rings or other constricting jewelry. It would help if you acted quickly before the damaged area swells.

Planning for Your Consultation

If you think you might have frostbite or hypothermia, dial 911 immediately. Your doctor may advise you to visit the ER if your symptoms are severe enough.

Image alt text: how to provide first aid for frostbite. A picture of a frostbitten hands.

Author credit: By Winky from Oxford, UK – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=990287

Use the following details to prepare for your medical examination if you have time before your scheduled appointment.

Please summarize your medical history, including the names and diagnoses of any other illnesses you may have. Include all medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, on your report.

Don’t forget to detail the duration you’ve been suffering any symptoms. As well as letting your doctor know if your symptoms have worsened or improved, providing as much information as possible regarding your cold exposure is always a good idea.

Write down when you last had a tetanus injection—the risk of tetanus increases in those who have suffered frostbite. Your doctor may suggest vaccination if you haven’t gotten one yet or it’s been over 10 years since your last injection.

Create a list of queries for your physician. The time you spend with your specialist is limited, so it’s in your best interest to be well-prepared.

Frostbite’s Unwanted Consequences or Complications

In the event of tissue death, the blood supply to that area will cease. Because your body normally uses white blood cells in fighting infections, this can leave the affected area wide open to illness.

Frostbite may result in several complications, especially if not treated in time:

Amputation of the Affected Area

Apart from the skin, the underlying muscular tissue, bone, and blood vessels are all vulnerable to frostbite, and the damage to the blood vessels could be permanent.

Without adequate circulation, gangrene can set in. In extreme cases, amputation may be the only option to save the damaged limb

Extreme cold intolerance

Individuals who have suffered from severe frostbite in the past frequently experience additional long-term complications, including heightened cold sensitivity and numbness of the affected regions.


Vasoconstriction, the first step in developing frostbite, occurs when your body is subjected to shallow temperatures. Insufficient blood flow means less heat is being transported to the tissues, which finally freeze over.

When blood vessels tighten, more pressure is exerted against the body’s extremities—the force of blood flow increases, which might have severe consequences like high blood pressure.

Traumatic lesions of the growth plates

Sports like gymnastics, baseball, and jogging put athletes at risk for growth plate injuries due to the high likelihood of unintentional falls and limb trauma. Tendonitis can also be caused by the overuse of tendons or by a disease or condition that prevents the bone from growing normally, such as an infection.

However, freezing temperatures (frostbite) can harm the development plates, leading to short fingers and the disintegration of your joint cartilage.


Frigid weather puts people at risk for bacterial wound diseases like tetanus. The bloodstream is a common target for this infection, which can lead to a life-threatening condition called sepsis and necessitate antibiotic therapy. Both of these illnesses necessitate medical attention in a hospital.


Extreme frostbite is often accompanied by hypothermia, a potentially fatal fall of core temperature beneath 35 degrees Celsius (95F). Some of the earliest signs are constant shivering, fatigue, lack of energy, and coldness or pallor.

Other frostbite complications include:

  • Alterations in pigmentation
  • Nail discoloration, thinning, and loss
  • Painful, achy joints (frostbite arthritis)
  • Increased risk of further frostbite attacks

Prevention Measures against Frostbites

Protection against frostbite is possible. Here are some suggestions for keeping warm and secure.

Stay indoors when the weather outside is terrible: Consider the wind chill when examining the weather prediction. In extremely cold or windy conditions, exposed skin can become frostbite in as little as a few minutes.

Layer up with warm, comfortable, and loose garments: The body’s warmth is preserved by the air pockets between the garments. Put on outerwear that can withstand the wind, snow, or rain. Choose lingerie that can absorb sweat without letting it sit on the skin. Remove damp clothing, especially footwear, headwear, and gloves.

Keep an eye out for frostbite: Skin discoloration, tingling, and numbness are all symptoms of frostbite that can be detected early on. If you start to feel the effects of frostbite, get indoors somewhere warm.

Make a strategy for your safety: Pack extra warm clothes and emergency supplies if you’re traveling when it’s freezing out. When traveling into uncharted areas, you must let others know where you’ll be going and when you plan to return.

Put on some warm, dry socks with sock liners. Take into account the use of foot and hand warmers. But ensure the foot warmers you use don’t make your boots too small, as this could cut off your circulation.

Remove your gloves and replace them with mittens. Gloves aren’t as protective as mitts. Use a lightweight pair of wicking gloves (made of polypropylene) under a thicker pair of gloves or mittens.

You should also:

  • Cover your ears entirely by using a hat or headband. The finest hat for keeping warm in the cold is made of thick wool or a windproof material.
  • Maintain a healthy diet and plenty of fluid intake. This will keep you warm even before you head out into the cold.
  • Just keep going. Exercise is one of the habits of leading a quality life, and it can help you maintain body heat, but you shouldn’t push yourself too much.
  • If you must go outside in the cold, avoid drinking alcohol as it increases the rate at which the body loses heat.

How Can You Provide First Aid for Frostbite to Someone Suffering?

Here are some of the strategies that can help you save someone suffering from frostbite:

Step 1

Get them out of the chill. Don’t let them go outside if the frostbite has set in on their toes. Put a little stool under their feet to keep them off the cold floor until they warm up. After a short while, the tingling feeling should subside.

Step 2

Get the frostbitten region warm. Warm water immersion is recommended for this purpose. It’s important to use caution, though. The water mustn’t be scalding. The optimal water temperature is between 106 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

Step 3

Pat the injured area dry and wrap it in a warm blanket or sweater. After the site has been thoroughly dried, you can disinfect it with a sterile gauze or clean towel.

Step 4

You should take measures to alleviate the inflammation of the frostbitten area. Maintaining an elevated position is necessary to do this.

Step 5

You should see a doctor if the frostbite isn’t improving. Find a nearby aid source or dial 911 for medical assistance. A doctor can recommend the appropriate treatment after examining the frostbitten region.

Step 6

Please refrain from picking at or breaking any blisters that may appear. Aftereffects could include mild burning that would be far more excruciatingly painful. Also, advise the victim to let the blisters heal independently and keep the affected region dry.


Suppose you are exposed to temperatures below freezing for an extended period. In that case, you run the risk of developing frostbite. Nonetheless, being familiar with the appropriate first aid for frostbite is crucial to prevent irreversible damage or complications like tetanus, hypothermia, and growth plate lesions or injuries.