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First Aid and Emergencies

Frostbite

Prevention - Home Treatment - When to Call a Health Professional

Frostbite is freezing of the skin or underlying tissues that occurs as a result of prolonged exposure to cold.

Frostbitten skin is pale or blue, stiff or rubbery to touch, and feels cold and numb. The severity is divided into 3 degrees:

First degree: Frostnip. Skin is whitish and numb, but there is little likelihood of blistering if it is rewarmed promptly.

Second degree: Superficial frostbite. Outer skin feels hard and frozen, but tissue underneath has normal resilience. Blistering is likely.

Third degree: Deep frostbite. Skin is white or blotchy and blue. Skin and tissue underneath are hard and very cold.

Prevention

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Stay dry and out of the wind in extreme cold, and cover areas of exposed skin. Keep your body's core temperature up:

  • Wear layers of clothing. Wool and polypropylene are good insulators. Wear windproof, waterproof outer layers. Wear wool socks and well-fitting, waterproof boots.

  • Wear a hat to prevent heat loss from your head. Wear mittens rather than gloves.

  • Keep protective clothing and blankets in your car in case of a breakdown in an isolated area.

  • Don't drink alcohol or smoke when you are out in extreme cold.

Home Treatment

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  • Get inside or take shelter from the wind.

  • Check for signs of hypothermia (See Hypothermia) and treat it before treating frostbite.

  • Protect the frozen body part from further exposure. Don't rewarm the area if refreezing is possible. Wait until you reach shelter.

  • Warm small areas (ears, face, nose, fingers, toes) with warm breath or by tucking hands or feet inside warm clothing next to bare skin.

  • Don't rub or massage the frozen area, because doing so will further damage tissues. Avoid walking on frostbitten feet if possible.

  • Keep the frostbitten body part warm and elevated. Wrap it with blankets or soft material to prevent bruising. If possible, immerse it in warm water 40° to 42°C (104° to 108°F) for 15 to 30 minutes.

  • Blisters may appear as the skin warms. Do not break them. The skin may turn red, burn, tingle, or be very painful. Aspirin or acetaminophen may help.

When to Call a Health Professional

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  • If the skin is white or blue, hard, and cold (third-degree frostbite). Careful rewarming and antibiotic treatment are needed to prevent permanent tissue damage and infection.

  • If blisters develop during rewarming (second- or third-degree frostbite). Do not break blisters. The risk of infection is very high.

  • If signs of infection develop:

    • Increased pain, swelling, redness, or tenderness.

    • Heat or red streaks extending from the area.

    • Discharge of pus.

    • Fever of 37.8°C (100°F) or higher with no other cause.

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