Overview Of Frostbite

Frostbite is damage to the skin and underlying tissues caused by extreme cold. This condition is the most common freezing injury.

Commonly Associated With

Cold exposure – arms or legs

Causes Of Frostbite

Frostbite occurs when the skin and body tissues are exposed to cold temperatures for a long period of time.

You are more likely to develop frostbite if you:

  • Take medicines called beta-blockers
  • Have poor blood supply to the legs (peripheral vascular disease)
  • Smoke
  • Have diabetes
  • Have Raynaud phenomenon


Symptoms of frostbite may include:

  • Pins and needles feeling, followed by numbness
  • Hard, pale, and cold skin that has been exposed to the cold for too long
  • Aching, throbbing, or lack of feeling in the affected area
  • Red and extremely painful skin and muscle as the area thaws

Very severe frostbite may cause:

  • Blisters
  • Gangrene (blackened, dead tissue)
  • Damage to tendons, muscles, nerves, and bone
  • Frostbite may affect any part of the body. The hands, feet, nose, and ears are the places most prone to the problem.

If the frostbite did not affect your blood vessels, a complete recovery is possible. If the blood vessels are affected, the damage is permanent. Gangrene may occur. This may require removal of the affected body part (amputation).

Treatment Of Frostbite

Take the following steps if you think someone might have frostbite:

  • Shelter the person from the cold and move them to a warmer place. Remove any tight jewelry and wet clothes. Look for signs of hypothermia (lowered body temperature) and treat that condition first.
  • If you can get medical help quickly, it is best to wrap the damaged areas in sterile dressings. Remember to separate affected fingers and toes. Transport the frostbitten person to an emergency department for further care.
  • If medical help is not nearby, you may give the person rewarming first aid. Soak the affected areas in warm (never hot) water — for 20 to 30 minutes. For ears, nose, and cheeks, apply a warm cloth repeatedly. The recommended water temperature is 104°F to 108°F (40°C to 42.2°C). Keep circulating the water to aid the warming process. Severe burning pain, swelling, and color changes may occur during warming. Warming is complete when the skin is soft and the feeling returns.
  • Apply dry, sterile dressings to the affected areas. Put dressings between frostbitten fingers or toes to keep them separated.
  • Move thawed areas as little as possible.
  • Refreezing of thawed extremities can cause more severe damage. Prevent refreezing by wrapping the thawed areas and keeping the person warm. If protection from refreezing cannot be guaranteed, it may be better to delay the initial rewarming process until a warm, safe location is reached.
  • If the frostbite is severe, give the person warm drinks to replace lost fluids.