Frostbite Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

Knoji reviews products and up-and-coming brands we think you'll love. In certain cases, we may receive a commission from brands mentioned in our guides. Learn more.
Getting frostbite can happen quickly and without you realizing it. Frostbite can be minor, painful to life threatening.

The dangers of frostbite are very real, and getting frostbite is easier than you think. Frostbite can range from just painful to life threatening and losing parts of your body.

What is Frostbite

Frostbite is the freezing of tissue; your skin actually freezes. When skin freezes, ice crystals form in the cells causing physical damage and a permanent change in the chemistry of the cell. Frostbite occurs 90% of the time in the hands, feet, nose and ears. Frostbite is classified by the degree of tissue injury, just like burns. The different stages of frostbite are:

First-degree frostbite, or frostnip, is when only the surface of the skin freezes. It starts out with the area getting red. For example your hands will start to turn bright red, this along with the prickly feeling, numbness or pain. Your hands or feet could be swollen along with this redness. They will start to become painful when frostbite is starting. There won’t be any permanent damage, but the area can be sensitive to cold from then on. I can tell you from experience, when you are close to getting frostbite on your hands and you go into a warm house, it can be quite painful when they start to warm up.

Second-degree frostbite, or superficial frostbite, happens when the skin feels frozen and hard, numbness followed by pain. Within 24 hours there can be a calloused feel or blisters can form. Never pop the blisters. The deeper tissues are not damaged and should heal within 3 to 4 weeks. The area could be permanently sensitive to cold. Depending on the size of the area with frostbite, you should have this checked by a doctor.

Third degree frostbite appears as white, white blotches or a blue color. The underlying tissue is also damaged and will feel cold and hard. After several weeks blisters will form with blood in them. This is a very serious condition, and there is a chance the person also has hypothermia and needs immediate medical attention.

Fourth degree frostbite is when the muscles, tendons and deeper tissues freeze, and requires immediate medical attention. This can cause the loss of fingers, toes and feet, and can be life threatening.

Hypothermia is life-threatening and occurs when the body temperature drops below 90 F (32 C) with uncontrollable shivering, slow speech, memory lapses, frequent stumbling, drowsiness and exhaustion and requires immediate medical attention.

How Your Body Loses Heat

Your body can lose heat a number of ways. Evaporation happens when your skin gets wet either from weather or sweating. As you start to dry, your body will cool. Conductive cooling is when you touch something cold like metal; this draws your body heat away. Radiation cooling occurs when your body heat escapes, from being improperly dressed. And wind chill is a big factor in getting frostbite.

Wind Chill and Frostbite

It could be 5 F above zero (-15 C), but if the wind is blowing at 20 mph (32 km/h), the wind chill temperature is –15 F (-26 C). The wind chill temperature is the temperature on your exposed skin. With a wind chill of –19 F (-28 C) or lower, your exposed skin will get frostbite in 30 minutes. A wind chill of –32 F (-35 C) can cause frostbite within 10 minutes to exposed skin. Wind chill is even more dangerous on cloudy days, and especially at night.

Treating Frostbite

There are a number of things you can do yourself for frostbite. Get inside if possible. If your hands are turning bright red, it could be the start of frostbite. If you can’t go inside, at least put your hands under your armpits. Do not rub the cold or frostbite area; this can cause further damage to the tissues. Take off all wet clothes right away and put on dry warm clothes. You can warm the frostbite area with warm but not hot water. If your hands are numb, have someone else test the temperature of the water or you could burn your hands. Put a towel in the dryer and then wrap your feet or hands in that towel.

Warm up the entire person, not just the frostbite areas. Put a blanket in the dryer and then wrap yourself or the person with frostbite in it.

Warm up by drinking warm soups, broths or herbal teas. Do not drink alcohol or anything with caffeine in it.

Since the area that has frostbite can be numb, be careful when putting hands near a fire; you could get burned, not feeling the heat's intensity.

Do not warm up or thaw the frostbite area if you are going to get it cold again. Get to a permanent shelter, home or medical facility before warming the area up.

Avoiding Frostbite

Dress properly in layers, with the correct materials and cover all exposed skin.

Keep your gloves on. At –25 F (-32 C), I made the mistake and took my gloves off trying to start the car. The instant my fingers touched the keys it felt like I had touched a lit match. I had just gotten frostbite. You can also get frostbite by touching something extremely cold.

Try to stay out of the wind.

Stay dry; if you get wet, try and change into dry clothes as soon as possible.

Drink a lot of water to stay hydrated, especially if you are at high altitudes. If you are planning a trip to higher elevations, acclimate yourself first.

Avoid alcohol. Alcohol is dehydrating and also constricts the blood vessels, causing less blood to flow to your extremities. Being drunk in cold weather is dangerous. Every winter there are stories of someone being found dead from hypothermia while drunk, even outside their own home. When drunk, you will not realize how cold you are.

© 2009 Sam Montana

Helpful Articles About Winter Safety

How to Dress Warm and Prevent Frostbite

7 Tips to Keep Your Dog Healthy and Safe During The Winter

WInd Chill Conversion Chart


DermNet of New Zealand