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Home Health Library Frostbite: First aid

Frostbite: First aid

Learn how to administer first aid for frostbite.

Overview

Frostbite is when skin and underlying tissues freeze after being exposed to very cold temperatures. It causes a cold feeling followed by numbness. As the frostbite gets worse, the affected skin may change color and become hard or waxy-looking.

The areas most likely to be affected are the fingers, toes, ears, cheeks, chin and tip of the nose.

When to seek emergency help

Seek emergency care for:

  • Intense pain even after taking a pain reliever and rewarming.
  • Intense shivering.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Trouble walking.
  • Suspected hypothermia. Symptoms of hypothermia are intense shivering, drowsiness, confusion, fumbling hands and slurred speech.

Treatment

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

  • 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.

  • Get out of the cold, remove wet clothes and wrap up in a warm blanket.
  • Gently rewarm frostbitten areas. If possible, soak the skin with frostbite in a tub or sink of warm water for about 30 minutes. For frostbite on the nose or ears, cover the area with warm, wet cloths for about 30 minutes.
  • Drink a warm, nonalcoholic beverage.
  • Take a nonprescription pain reliever if needed.
  • Remove rings or other tight items. Do this before the injured area swells with rewarming.

What to avoid

  • Don't rub the affected skin with snow or anything else.
  • Don't walk on frostbitten feet or toes if possible.
  • Don't rewarm frostbitten skin with direct heat, such as a stove, heat lamp, fireplace or heating pad. This can cause burns.
  • Don’t drink alcohol.
  • Don't apply direct heat. For example, don't warm the skin with a heating pad, a heat lamp, a blow-dryer or a car heater.
Last Updated: April 4th, 2024