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How To Treat Frostbite

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Updated January 25, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Frostbitten hands

Frostbite looks much like burns and causes similar damage to tissues

A.D.A.M. frostbitten-cheeks.jpg

Frostbitten cheeks from riding a snowmobile in subzero weather.

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Frostbitten big toe.

Image from Timothy J. Kosie

Frostbite occurs when the body's tissues freeze deeply in the cold. Ice crystals that form in the tissues cause damage to the cells. It's important not to try to rewarm or treat frostbite until absolutely certain that the tissues will not refreeze, but it's best to thaw frostbitten tissue no later than 24 hours after the injury.

Frostbitten tissue can look blue, red, white or very pale. It often looks just like a burn. It may feel waxy or hard. Victims might not be able to feel frostbitten tissue. Many times, victims will not recognize frostbite symptoms.

Here's How:

  1. Stay Safe! It's more important to make sure no one else is injured by the cold. Only help if you can do so safely. Follow universal precautions and wear personal protective equipment if you have it.
  2. Remove the victim from the cold. DO NOT attempt to thaw frostbitten tissues if there is a possibility they could freeze again.
  3. Fill a shallow container with enough water to cover the frostbitten body part. The water should be about 98 to 105 degrees (normal body temperature or a little warmer).
  4. Continue to refresh the water in the container as it cools. Keep the water at the same temperature as consistently as possible. It should take about half an hour to thaw the frostbitten tissue this way.
  5. As soon as feasible, get the victim to medical assistance - even after thawing frostbite.

Tips:

  1. DO NOT allow thawed tissue to freeze again. The more often tissue freezes and thaws, the deeper the damage. If the victim will soon be exposed to freezing temperatures again, wait to treat frostbite.
  2. NEVER rub or massage frostbitten tissue. Rubbing frostbitten tissue will result in more severe damage.
  3. DO NOT use any heating devices, stoves, or fires to treat frostbite. Victims cannot feel the frostbitten tissue and can be burned easily.
  4. In a pinch, body heat can be used to thaw mild frostbite or frost nip (tissues that are not quite frozen yet). For example, place mildly frostbitten fingers under the arm to keep warm.

    Source:

    Markenson D, Ferguson JD, Chameides L, Cassan P, Chung K-L, Epstein J, Gonzales L, Herrington RA, Pellegrino JL, Ratcliff N, Singer A. "Part 17: first aid: 2010 American Heart Association and American Red Cross Guidelines for First Aid." Circulation. 2010;122(suppl 3):S934 –S946.

What You Need:

  • Sink, tub, or other container deep enough to cover the frostbitten part.

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