by Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Frostbite is damage to skin and tissues from being exposed to below-freezing temperatures for a long time. It is most common on the fingers, toes, ears, nose, chin, and cheeks.
This problem needs to be treated right away.
This problem is caused by exposure to below-freezing temperatures. It causes ice crystals to form within body tissues. This blocks blood flow and oxygen. It leads to tissue damage or death. Some damage may also happen during warming.
This problem is more common in people who are 30 to 49 years of age.
Other things that may raise the risk are:
Early stages may cause:
Later stages may cause:
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. You will ask about any recent exposure to cold. A physical exam will be done. It will focus on the damaged areas. This is enough to make the diagnosis.
Treatment is needed right away. The goals will be to rewarm the body and prevent further damage.
Rapid rewarming in a warm (98.6 °F to 102.2 °F / 37 °C to 39 °C) water bath is the main treatment. Slow rewarming may cause more damage.
Other choices are:
People who are not helped by these methods may need surgery or amputation to remove dead or damaged tissue.
The risk of this problem may be lowered by:
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Canadian Dermatology Association
Environment and Climate Change Canada
Frostbite. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/staysafe/frostbite.html. Accessed March 24, 2021.
Frostbite. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/frostbite. Accessed March 24, 2021.
Frostbite and frostnip. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at:
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Accessed March 24, 2021.
McIntosh SE, Freer L, et al. Wilderness Medical Society Practice Guidelines for the Prevention and Treatment of Frostbite: 2019 Update. Wilderness Environ Med. 2019 Jul 17 early online.
Last reviewed December 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Daniel A. Ostrovsky, MD
Last Updated: 03/24/2021
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