How is frostbite treated?

Time is critical when you have frostbite. If you notice frostnip symptoms like pain or red fingers, get inside quickly and gently warm your skin. If you’re experiencing any symptoms from the second or third stages of frostbite, seek emergency medical help right away. Remove all wet clothing, wrap the affected area in a sterile (clean) cloth and then immediately go to the emergency room. Hospital staff will then:

  • Help raise your body temperature in lukewarm water or by applying warm, wet packs for up to half an hour.
  • Dress your frostbitten or wounded skin with sterile bandages, keeping your fingers and toes separated to avoid rubbing.
  • Test blood flow in the area. If you have stage three frostbite, your provider may also connect you to an IV bag (pouch with fluids) to improve poor circulation.
  • Give you antibiotics and pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil ®, Motrin ®), for example.
  • Possibly give you a tetanus booster, if needed, since frostbite puts you at higher risk for tetanus.
  • Rehydrate you by giving you water (frostbite dehydrates your tissues).
  • Give you oxygen therapy. For extreme frostbite, your provider may have you breathe pure oxygen inside a pressurized room. This treatment, called hyperbaric oxygen therapy, helps some people heal faster by increasing their blood-oxygen levels.

Never treat frostbite with anything hot to the touch. Avoid using space heaters, electric blankets, fireplaces or hot water.

Do I need surgery for frostbite?

In some cases, your provider may need to perform surgery to remove any dead skin and tissue after you heal (this may take days or even months). In the case of severe (deep) frostbite, surgeons may need to remove (amputate) the fingers or toes if the tissue has died or gangrene has developed.

How do you treat frostbite by yourself?

If you’re in a remote area or you’re unable to go to the hospital, your first priority is to make sure you’ll stay warm and not refreeze — as this can cause further skin damage. To warm back up, follow these steps:

  • Remove all wet clothing.
  • Elevate the injured area slightly.
  • Warm your skin by soaking the frostbitten area in warm water (around 105 F or 40.5 C). Since the skin may be numb, be careful not to burn it with hot water. Burning could cause more damage to the tissue. When your skin feels soft again, you can stop warming it.
  • Cover the frostbitten area with sterile (clean) cloth. If your fingers or toes are frostbitten, wrap each one individually. Make sure you keep them separated to avoid stress or pressure.
  • Try not to move the area at all. Avoid walking on frostbitten toes or feet.
  • Don’t rub frostbitten areas because rubbing skin that’s hard or numb can cause tissue damage.

Can you have frostbite and not know it?

Many people who get frostbite are completely unaware that they have it. Because frostbite numbs your nerves and can cause damage deep inside your skin, you might not notice any symptoms after coming in from the cold. Stay safe by going inside and warming back up.

What if my child has frostbite?

You might not know if your child has frostbite. Infants don’t shiver like adults because they don’t have as much energy stored up. And older children are usually too busy having fun outside to notice they’re frostbitten.

If your baby or toddler has recently been outside in the cold for even 10 minutes, it’s time to check on them. If you notice parts of their skin are red, white or gray, immediately call 911. If your children are older and they’ve been outside too long without covering up completely, remove their wet clothing and dry them under blankets. Leave the affected areas uncovered but elevated. Use a tub full of warm — but not hot — water to help children of any age recover from the cold.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/21/2020.

References

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