Frostbite: First aid

By Mayo Clinic Staff

When exposed to very cold temperatures, skin and underlying tissues may freeze, resulting in frostbite. The areas most likely to be affected by frostbite are your fingers toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin.

If your skin pales or turns red and is very cold, hard or waxy looking, you may have frostbite. You may also experience a prickling feeling or numbness. With severe or deep frostbite, you may experience blistering and pain.

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

  • Check for hypothermia. Get emergency medical help if you suspect hypothermia. Signs and symptoms of hypothermia include intense shivering, slurred speech, drowsiness and loss of coordination.
  • Protect your skin from further exposure. 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. Don't rub the affected area and never rub snow on frostbitten skin.
  • Get out of the cold. Once you're indoors, remove wet clothes.
  • Gently rewarm frostbitten areas. Soak hands or feet in warm water — 99 to 108 F (37 to 42 C) — for 15 to 30 minutes. If a thermometer isn't available, test the water by placing an uninjured hand or elbow in it — it should feel very warm — not hot.

    Don't rewarm frostbitten skin with direct heat, such as a stove, heat lamp, fireplace or heating pad. This can cause burns.

  • 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.
  • Take pain medicine. If you are in pain, take over-the-counter ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) to reduce pain and inflammation.
  • Don't walk on frostbitten feet or toes if possible. This further damages the tissue.
  • Know what to expect as skin thaws. If the skin turns red and you feel tingling and burning as it warms, normal blood flow is returning. But seek emergency medical attention if the numbness or pain remains during warming or if blisters develop.
Oct. 11, 2014