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.

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