Treating Frostbite

Frostbite can look like a burn injury.

Second-degree (superficial) frostbite affects the top layers of the skin. Signs include:

  • White, waxy skin
  • Numbness
  • Swelling
  • Blisters with clear fluid

If second-degree frostbite isn’t treated, it can progress into a more serious stage.

Third-degree (deep-tissue) frostbite can look like second-degree frostbite at first, but signs include:

  • Dark, blood-filled blisters when skin thaws.
  • Skin turning dark
  • Tissue loss

At the Hospital

Professional and timely medical evaluation and treatment of frostbite is critical, as it can be difficult to tell how much damage has been done to the surrounding tissues.

At the hospital, the medical team will:

  • Warm the frostbitten area
  • Bandage it to protect the skin
  • Provide pain medication
  • Evaluate to determine the extent of the injury

In third-degree cases, thrombolytic therapy may be used to break up blood clots to help reduce the risk of amputation from severe tissue damage.

The extent of tissue damage may not be evident for weeks, so you may need follow-up appointments to monitor the injured area.

First Aid for Frostbite

You should only work to treat frostbite if getting to a hospital right away is not possible.

Do not attempt to thaw frostbitten skin if there is a possibility it could freeze again. Doing so will result in deeper damage than allowing the tissue to remain frozen longer.

If feet are affected by frostbite, don’t walk on them unless it’s necessary to get to a safe location.6 Walking on frostbitten feet can cause more damage to the tissue. 

To start providing first-aid treatment:

  1. Immerse the affected body part in warm water (between 98 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit; normal body temperature or a little warmer). If you don’t have a thermometer, feel the water with an uninjured hand to make sure it’s comfortable and won’t cause burns.
  2. Soak the frozen area for 30 minutes. Continue to refresh the water in the container as it cools to keep it at a consistent temperature. If you don’t have access to water, wrap the area gently with clothes or a blanket to help get warm.
  3. Depending on the amount of damage, warming the skin can be very painful as the numbness fades. If available, you can give an over-the-counter (OTC) non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug like ibuprofen to help with symptoms until you can get to the hospital. 
  4. During the warming process, the skin may start to blister. To avoid infection, do not rupture any of the blisters. You can apply a bulky sterile dressing to the area once dried. Make sure that the bandages are loose, not tight.

Treating Frostnip

Frostnip is the mildest form of cold injury to the skin. Signs of frostnip include:

  • Redness or paleness of the skin
  • Mild pain
  • Tingly or numb sensation in body parts exposed to the cold

Frostnip doesn’t require a trip to your healthcare provider, but it is an indicator that your skin has already started to become affected and that continued exposure could lead to a more serious form of frostbite.

You can treat frostnip by getting warm. This includes:

  • Finding a warm shelter
  • Covering up with layers of dry clothing
  • Blowing warm air from your mouth through cupped hands around the affected area
  • Warming the extremity by using body heat, such as putting your fingers in your armpit

How to Treat Frostbite

Frostbite occurs when skin and underlying tissue freeze from exposure to extremely cold temperatures. While it’s mild form, frostnip, causes redness and numbness that can be self-treated with proper first aid, more advanced stages of frostbite require emergency medical attention. Frostbite treatment includes controlled rewarming, and potential interventions such as IV fluids and medications.

Proper and prompt treatment of frostbite is essential to preventing complications, including permanent damage. Here’s what you need to do to handle your case properly.

Mature man outside on a snowy day


Treating frostbite is a delicate warming procedure that really shouldn’t be attempted without a medical professional unless there’s no other option. As soon as frostbite is recognized, the most important thing to do is keep the area from being exposed to any more freezing temperatures. Rewarming it can be done later, but the longer the area is exposed to freezing temperatures, the deeper the frostbite goes.



Early stages of frostbite look just like a burn. There’s swelling, blistering, and redness. As frostbite progresses, the skin turns white or yellow. Eventually, it turns black. The best way to learn how to recognize frostbite is to see pictures of it.

Frostbite is literally caused by frozen tissues and fluids in the skin. As the tissues get colder, the damage leads to inflammation and swelling, just as is the case with a burn. Frostbite patients also complain of discomfort from the frostbite:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Loss of movement
  • Burning sensations

Because the signs and symptoms of frostbite look so similar to the signs of a burn from heat, chemicals, or the sun, it can be easy to confuse these injuries. Here are some common-sense ways to tell if an injury is frostbite or something else:

  • Cold, red, swollen toes after walking in snow for several hours: probable frostbite
  • Cold, blistered fingers after a day on the ski slopes: probable frostbite
  • What looks like a burn forming after icing a twisted ankle: possibly frostbite
  • Red, swollen nose after fishing for crab during December in the Bering Sea: frostbite
  • Can’t feel your feet after climbing Mt. Everest: definitely frostbite

I’m being a little silly, but it’s very important to consider the cold if you develop swelling and redness in your fingers or toes. Some patients completely overlook the possibility of frostbite until it’s too late.

Early frostbite, sometimes called frostnip, is very treatable and often doesn’t result in any permanent damage. Severe frostbite can lead to loss of skin and muscle. Just like burns, frostbite can be categorized as first-, second-, or third-degree frostbite.



You might know that frostbite happens in fingers and toes. You might know it comes from being in really cold weather. You may even know it can come from improperly icing an injury. But do you know how to recognize frostbite?