Frostbite – Diagnosis and Treatment

Outdoor activities enthusiasts believe that food, water, and first aid are what you need for survival when going for an outdoor activity such as hiking; Thereby underplaying the importance of keeping warm and dry.

This negligence can lead to the development of cold-related medical emergencies like frostbite.

Frostbite is a common medical condition caused by prolonged skin exposure to a cold or freezing temperature, leading to tissue or skin damage.

If frostbite is mild, you can recover from frostbite; however, it can lead to permanent tissue damage in extreme cases.

Most cases of frostbite are preventable, and it’s important to know what the signs are and how to treat frostbite in yourself and others.

Stages of Frostbite

Frostbite becomes a medical emergency depending on how long your skin has been exposed to a freezing temperature. Frostbite falls into three stages which are:


At this stage, tissue damage is temporary and easily reversible. Frostnip is considered the warning stage, and noticeable symptoms include redness of the skin, which may cause a prickling sensation or numbness if you stay longer in the cold.

If you experience this noticeable symptom, you should find a warm environment to prevent exposure to cold and treat the affected area with warm water.

Superficial (surface) frostbite

During the Superficial frostbite stage, your skin tissues slowly freeze and become ice crystals. This causes a localized area of inflammation that looks swollen and red (Chilblain).

You should seek immediate medical care to prevent further damage when you get to this stage.

Rewarming the affected area as soon as possible would be helpful. While rewarming, your doctor may prescribe a pain reliever to help manage and ease discomfort. After rewarming, your doctor may also give you intravenous fluids to keep you hydrated.

Your skin may develop purple or blue patches that hurt like a sunburn in the early stages of recovery. If blisters appear during recovery, your doctor will drain them.

Severe (deep) frostbite

Frostbite in this stage causes severe damage to tissues and skin, resulting in numbness and immobility of the affected area.

This stage leads to cell death and causes the skin at the affected area to turn black and forms a hard carapace which is shed off on its own or removed surgically.

Your doctor will provide pain medication to ease pain and wrap the affected area after rewarming to prevent infection. Your doctor may prescribe a “clot-buster” to improve blood flow to the affected area.

In some cases, surgery may be the only feasible solution to mitigate the effect of the damage. People with deep frostbite may experience recurring pain, stiffness, or numbness and increase sensitivity to cold.


There is no specific procedure to diagnose frostbite. Your primary healthcare provider will make a diagnosis based on your symptoms while taking notes of important vitals such as blood pressure, temperature, respiratory rate, and skin appearance to treat other life-threatening conditions such as hypothermia if necessary.

In extreme cases, your doctor may order X-rays, a bone scan, or an MRI to evaluate the extent of damage to internal tissues such as muscles and bones.

Treatment for Frostbite

When treating mild frostbite, there are some key things to remember. Keep in mind that the first-aid care and rewarming process will cause so much pain, which is why you should have some pain medication to help relieve pain and discomfort.

Heat water to a temperature between 103° and 107.5° F and submerge the affected area entirely in the water so that the rewarming process can take full effect.

Submerge the affected area until all tissues on the skin have softened and the discoloration is gone. Wash the affected area with antibacterial soap to prevent further infection.

Then apply ointment to soothe the skin’s surface before covering it with gauze to prevent further damage to the tissue. And always take extreme caution not to stay outdoors for a prolonged time.

Other treatment options your doctor may recommend in extreme cases include:

How to Prevent Frostbite

You can prevent frostbite by strictly following the following routine;

  • Avoid staying outdoor when it’s cold
  • Dress warmly in freezing temperatures.
  • When travelling, always take extra supplies
  • Use insulating gloves when going for outdoor activities
  • Keep yourself hydrated
  • Recognize the early symptoms of frostbite to know when to seek shelter

If you experience symptoms of frostbite, never rub your hands together to prevent damage to the already frozen tissues.

The important thing is to warm yourself back up to average temperatures again. If you are wet or have any wet clothing, remove them and replace them with dry clothing and coverings.

Tags: Health Tips

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