Learn how to prevent and treat frostbite when you're out in the cold

Tips for Frostbite Prevention: Staying Safe in Extreme Cold

Everyone is susceptible to frostbite. But did you know children face a greater risk of this condition because they actually lose heat from their skin faster than adults?

Making matters worse, children may ignore how cold and uncomfortable they are rather than immediately seeking help. Learn how adults and children alike can prevent and identify the signs of frostbite.

Remember, severe frostbite requires immediate medical attention. Find UPMC locations near you. 

What Is Frostbite?

Frostbite is the freezing of body tissue, typically skin, that occurs due to exposure to extremely cold temperatures. This condition most commonly affects the fingers, toes, nose, ears, and chin, among other body parts.

Frostbite can attack when temperatures are below freezing. Wind and humidity can quicken the effects of frostbite.

How to Prevent Frostbite

When temperatures are extreme, always dress in layers and warm clothing and limit your time outdoors in the cold.

Layer properly to protect yourself from the cold:

    • Layer 1 – wear clothes that will keep moisture away from the skin. Thermal underwear, moisture-reducing winter sportswear, cotton socks, and glove liners are good items to use. The first layer, like the other layers, should not be so tight that circulation is affected.
    • Layer 2 – wear loose clothing that is intended to resist dampness and maintain body temperature. Heavy pants, sweaters, and sweatshirts are good items for layer two.
    • Layer 3 – wear tightly woven moisture-resistant outerwear. Moisture-resistant coats and jackets, hats, scarves, gloves, and boots are good third layer items.

Bring children inside at regular intervals and inspect fingers and noses for signs of frostbite. If you are away from home, take extra clothing along. In the extreme cold, take care to keep yourself and children dry — wet clothing can increase the chance of heat loss.

Identifying and Treating Frostbite: Know the Signs

Early frostbite is characterized by waxy, white, and hard skin that feels numb and has a persistent burning sensation. In more severe cases, frostbitten skin will become blue and mottled or splotchy.

Severe frostbite requires immediate medical attention. If you suspect your child or someone else has frostbite, remove cold and wet clothing. Dress the child in clothing that is loose, warm, and dry, and take them to a hospital.

Do Not

  • Rub or bump the area affected by frostbite.
  • Use direct heat, such as a heating pad or hair dryer to warm the affected area.
  • Pop blisters that appear. Popping blisters on frostbitten skin can cause infection.

Treating Frostbite

If you are not able to get someone with frostbite to a hospital right away, begin first aid

  • Provide something warm to drink, and keep them hydrated.
  • Keep them warm with clothes and blankets.
  • Soak frostbitten area in warm water (between 101° to 104° F). If you don’t have a thermometer, dip your elbow in the water. If the water is too hot for your elbow, it’s too hot. Maintain temperature of water by adding warm water if necessary.
  • Soak affected area until it becomes pink.
  • If the face is frostbitten, use a soft washcloth. Soak the washcloth in warm water and wring out any excess.
  • After the affected skin turns pink, dry the skin  — gently but thoroughly  — and wrap with clean gauze bandages.
  • If the toes or fingers are frostbitten, place gauze bandages or cotton balls between toes and fingers to permit these areas to dry. Thoroughly drying affected areas can prevent infection.
  • The affected person may have a burning sensation after warming.
  • The affected skin may blister, swell, become painful or turn blue, red or purple.
  • Seek medical attention as soon as possible for a thorough exam and additional treatment.
  • Avoid further exposure to the cold  — especially with the affected areas.