How to Treat Frostbite

If you work outdoors in the cold, enjoy winter sports like skiing, or spend more than 5 minutes outside waiting for the bus or walking the dog, you can develop frostbite! Learn how to treat frostbite.
If you work outdoors in the cold, enjoy winter sports like skiing, or spend more than 5 minutes outside waiting for the bus or walking the dog, you can develop frostbite! Learn how to treat frostbite. (Image: Zsolt Zátrok Dr Photo)

Frostbite can develop in less than 15 minutes. Symptoms of frostbite include a white, pale skin with a waxy appearance; swelling; and numbness, tingling, itching or a complete lack of sensation in the frostbitten body part. Blistering skin is also common in frostbite victims, as is purple, blue or black skin discoloration. Learn what to do if you suspect frostbite and how to treat frostbite at home without causing more damage.

Things You'll Need

  • Warm/Hot Water (about 100 degrees Fahrenheit).
  • A Warm Drink (decaffeinated and non-alcoholic).
  • A Warm, Heated Building Where You Can Stay Until the Frostbite Re-Warming is Complete.
  • Rolled Gauze.
  • Possibly a Ride to the Hospital.

BEGIN BY FINDING A WARM PLACE TO RE-WARM THE FROSTBITE VICTIM. The frostbite victim will need to stay in this warm, indoor location until the thawing process is complete. If there's a chance that the frostbite victim's injury site could re-freeze, you should hold off on re-warming the skin. A freeze-thaw-freeze situation can lead to even worse injury that can lead to permanent and severe scarring or amputation.

REMOVE JEWELRY, WATCHES, AND CONSTRICTIVE CLOTHING: When the frostbitten area - usually ears, nose, fingers or toes - is re-warmed, swelling can occur. A ring, watch or tight clothing can cut off circulation and cut into the frostbite victim's skin as it swells, causing more pain, discomfort and causing more injuries to the skin and soft tissues.

PLACE THE FROSTBITTEN AREA IN HOT WATER: Fill a tub, large bowl or sink with hot water - about 100 degrees Fahrenheit - and submerge the frostbitten body part in the water and re-fill with hot water as necessary. The faster you can warm a frostbitten body part, the better the prognosis and the better your chances are for a complete recovery. If possible, position the frostbite victim so that the frostbitten body part is above the heart, as this will reduce swelling as the skin warms following frostbite.

GIVE THE FROSTBITE VICTIM SOME HOT FLUIDS: Combat dehydration (a major problem in people with frostbite) and warm the body from within by drinking some hot liquids, like hot cocoa. No coffee or tea that contains caffeine, as this dehydrates the body. No alcohol either - this also contains caffeine and alcohol thins the blood, which can make swelling from frostbite even worse.

MONITOR THE FROSTBITE VICTIM FOR IMPROVEMENT: It's a good sign if the frostbitten body part turns red or pink as it starts to re-warm. If the body part starts getting discolored and the skin turns blue, purple or black, this is a serious problem that will require a trip to the hospital.

LOOK FOR BLISTERS ON THE SKIN: It's common to see skin blistering in a person with frostbite. This will require a trip to the hospital, as it can indicate serious skin damage and the blistered skin is prone to infection. If blistering occurs, wait until the re-warming process is complete and then pat the skin dry with a clean paper towel. Gently wrap the blistered skin with rolled gauze and wrap each finger individually to avoid rubbing between fingers. In the case of toes, wrap toes individually or place cotton between the toes to prevent friction which will worsen the blistering.

Tips & Warnings

  • The re-warming process after a case of frostbite can take several hours to complete. In most cases, the full extent of the damage from the frostbite will not be known for several days, which is why hospitalization occurs in many frostbite cases.
  • NEVER RUB SNOW ON A FROSTBITTEN BODY PART!! This is an old wives tale. It will only make the skin colder and it will increase your chances of developing blisters.
  • NEVER GIVE ALCOHOL TO A FROSTBITE VICTIM!! This too is an old wives tale. It will not warm you up. The alcohol will dehydrate you and make the recovery from frostbite even more difficult. You'll also see more bleeding and swelling under the skin since alcohol thins the blood.
  • Thawing a frostbitten body part is painful! Nerves that carry pain signals can be damaged by frostbite. As the body is re-warmed, the nerves come back to life and this part will be painful! This is another reason why many frostbite victims should go to the hospital - you may need some heavy painkillers during the re-warming process after a cold exposure incident.

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