Frostbite occurs when a body part is exposed to severely cold temperatures. This causes constriction of the blood vessels, resulting in low blood circulation and therefore, a reduced supply of oxygen and heat to the tissues. Frostbite is the most common freezing injury. The areas that are most likely to be affected include the fingers, toes, cheeks, chin, ears and nose. Frostbite can even occur on skin covered by gloves or other clothing. 

In the event of frostbite, it is important to act quickly and seek medical attention. Failure to do so can result in necrosis or cell death of the affected tissues.

What are the symptoms associated with frostbite?

The ends of the body such as the hands, feet, nose and ears are the ones most likely and most frequently to be affected. Frostbite is a condition which involves, in the initial stage, a loss of sensitivity and is therefore not always manifested by pain, which typically occurs in more advanced stages. First, the skin appears red in color (due to a reactive vasodilatation) and soft, and then becomes pale and finally blue-cyanotic. Affected areas will present severe pain at first, but then tend to become cold and numb. If frostbite is at an advanced stage, bubbles will start to present themselves on the affected areas: at first transparent and filled with blood and then finally as sores, taking on a very intense purple color. Seeking medical attention for frostbite is vital in cases involving severe pain, swelling, discharge, fever and hypothermia (a condition in which the body loses heat faster than it can be produced).

What to do

Upon signs of frostbite, seeking immediate medical assistance is advised. If treated quickly, the skin can be broken free of frozen constraints by warming the affected areas with lukewarm (not hot) water. In cases involving the hands or feet,  it is advisable to repeat warming the body parts every 20 minutes until the tissue is soft.  It is also important that the water is not too hot, as to avoid any damage to the organism. Though the individual may feel a sharp pain, it is generally a normal sign to indicate returned sensitivity. Once the affected area has been heated up, it must be dried gently while making minor frictions. It is also advised to cover the individual’s body with blankets, in order to keep it at a warm temperature and prevent refreezing.

What not to do

Instructions on what not to do in cases involving frostbite include the following:

  • Avoid rubbing the affected area in an attempt to warm it up
  • Avoid rubbing the affected area with ice or snow
  • Avoid applying alcohol to the affected area
  • Avoid using extremely hot water to warm up the affected area
  • Avoid rewarming the frostbitten skin with direct heat
  • Avoid walking on the affected areas such as the feet or toes (wait a short period of time to prevent further tissue damage)
  • Avoid thawing the affected areas if there is a chance that they will freeze again


Disclaimer: The information in this article does not in any way replace the intervention or signs associated with this type of emergency, but rather only provides simple tips as how to keep the situation under control while waiting for a medical rescue team to arrive.