All About Frostbite - Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare

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Published on December 11, 2013

Stages, Signs & Symptoms of Frostbite

Stage 1: Frostnip


  • Painful sensation
  • Darker areas of skin, red skin
  • Skin responds normally to pressure.

Stage 2: Superficial Frostbite


  • Numbness
  • White or grayish-yellow skin
  • Skin still feels soft

Stage 3: Deep frostbite


  • Numbness
  • White or grayish-yellow skin
  • Skin feels waxy and unusually firm

How to Treat Frostbite

  • Move to a warm indoor location if possible.
  • Remove any wet items of clothing and footwear and replace with dry clothing.
  • Wrap the patient's entire body in warm blankets for whole body warming.
  • Encourage the drinking of warm, non-alcoholic fluids.
  • Seek medical attention.


  • Do not rub the skin in an effort to get blood flowing back to the area. This causes friction and will destroy the already damaged skin and underlying tissue.
  • Do not use dry heat such as heaters, fireplaces or heating pads. These heat sources are too difficult to control, and will not supply the sort of gradual heat needed to treat frostbite.
  • Do not warm a body part if there is any chance of refreezing. Freezing, rewarming and freezing the skin again causes much more tissue damage than being frozen once.

Treating Severe or Deep Frostbite

If medical help is not available, or while you are waiting for medical help to arrive:

  1. Warm the affected areas gently and slowly. Gradual reheating is key to avoid tissue damage.
  2. If possible, submerge the affected areas in warm (not hot) water (100 - 105° F). Use a thermometer if possible. Do not rely on the patient to tell you whether the water is too warm or too hot.
  3. The rewarming and thawing process can be painful. Offer acetaminophen or ibuprofen, not aspirin. As the affected areas warm, there will be some severe burning sensations, change of skin color and maybe blistering/swelling. Do not try to treat/burst the blisters. The thawing process for fingers or toes can take 30 to 60 minutes.
  4. If warm water is not available compress the area with something warm such as a partner’s hand, armpit, or stomach. Do not rub!
  5. Apply dry sterile dressing to dress fingers and toes individually and keep them as still as possible. Use cotton balls or other spacers to keep digits from touching.
  6. Seek medical help as soon as possible. Failure to promptly treat frostbitten extremities may lead to permanent tissue damage. These instructions are not a substitute for proper medical attention.

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All About Frostbite