by Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD
Frostbite is damage to skin and tissues from prolonged exposure to below-freezing temperatures. Frostbite severity is based on the depth of tissue injury. The most severe frostbite can lead to permanent damage and/or amputation.
The most common parts of the body to become frostbitten include your fingers, toes, ears, nose, chin, or cheeks.
Exposure to below-freezing temperatures can cause the body tissue to freeze. Ice crystals form within the frozen body part. Blood cannot flow through the frozen tissue. This causes the frozen tissue to be deprived of blood and oxygen. The combination of freezing and oxygen deprivation causes tissue damage or tissue death. Some tissue damage may also happen during warming.
Factors that may increase your chance of frostbite include:
Early stages of frostbite may cause:
Later stages of frostbite may cause:
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Diagnosis is usually based on symptoms and the findings of the physical exam.
Rapid rewarming in a warm (98.6 °F [degrees Farenheit (F)] to 102.2 °F / 37 °C [degrees Cesius (C)] to 39 °C) water bath is the treatment of choice. Slow rewarming may cause more tissue damage.
If you are stranded with frostbite and unable to get medical help:
Medicines used depend on the severity of frostbite. Examples include:
Other frostbite treatments may include:
To help reduce the chance of frostbite:
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. Updated December 20, 2016. Accessed August 18, 2017.
Frostbite. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116549/Frostbite. Updated December 2, 2016. Accessed August 18, 2017.
Frostbite. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at:
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Updated January 2015. Accessed September August 18, 2017.
Last reviewed September 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 7/28/2020
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