Frostbite occurs when the skin, sometimes along with other soft tissues, freezes due to prolonged exposure to the cold. Knowing first aid to treat frostbite until you can get medical aid can help prevent permanent damage, so here’s what you need to know if you’re spending time in extreme cold.
You may see frostbite before you feel it
Our fingers and toes tend to go numb in the cold, so if your extremities start to freeze, you won’t necessarily realize it by feel. Early or mild frostbite may involve an itching or tingling sensation; after that, you’ll notice signs visually, whether on yourself or someone else. In order of severity, here are the color changes to look for:
- Skin turns pale yellow or white (mild)
- Skin becomes hard and looks shiny or waxy (intermediate)
- Skin darkens and turns blue or gray (severe)
When to seek medical help
Get to an emergency room as soon as possible if you suspect frostbite. This includes any of the color changes above, as well any as severe pain, bleeding, or blistering as your skin warms up.
Someone who has been cold long enough to develop frostbite may also have hypothermia, a condition in which the body’s core temperature has dropped. Hypothermia is more of an emergency than frostbite, according to the CDC, so tend to the hypothermia first. Severe frostbite can require amputation; severe hypothermia can lead to death. People with hypothermia may be confused, fatigued, and have slurred speech.
What to do while you wait for help
The first step in treating frostbite is to gently warm the affected area. Don’t rub the skin; while friction can help to warm up someone’s fingers or toes, it can also cause more damage to the skin.
If the skin is wet, remove any wet clothing (such as socks or mittens) and dry the area. Get to a warm place if possible; if you are outside, seek shelter.
To warm the skin, apply gentle heat from warm water, or use body heat—for example holding the person’s fingers against the core of their body or another person’s body.
If you’re using water, heat it to a little above body temperature, around 105 to 110 degrees. (If you don’t have a thermometer, go by feel. The water should feel like a warm bath, not a hot soup.) Water that is too hot can give the person burns in addition to frostbite, which is not a fun combination.
Monitoring the temperature is important, because a person with frostbite may not be able to tell if a heat source is too hot. Warm water is safer than sitting by a fire or space heater for this reason; if you have to use one of these heat sources, make sure a person who can feel the heat is able to monitor the temperature to avoid burns.