Useful Tips For Dealing With and Treating Frostbite

Learn to Identify and Treat Frostbite

frostbitten hands
Credit: Winky from Oxford, UK/Wikimedia Commons

Frostbite occurs when the body's skin and internal tissues freeze due to exposure to extremely cold temperatures. Ice crystals form in the tissues as a result of continued exposure to cold temperature, and these ice crystals cause damage to the body’s cells. Frostbite is most likely to occur in body parts that are located far away from the heart, such as the hands or the feet, as it takes the longest for blood to pump to these body parts.

 

If frostbite does occur, it is extremely important not to try to rewarm or treat the frostbitten area until absolutely certain that the tissues will not refreeze after being warmed. It is typically best to thaw frostbitten tissue no later than 24 hours after the initial injury.

Symptoms of Frostbite

Frostbitten tissue, such as skin, can be a variety of colors. It may look blue, red, white or even very pale. It often looks just like a burn from a fire. To the touch, frostbitten skin may feel waxy or especially hard. Victims of frostbite might not be able to feel the frostbitten tissue or properly move affected areas.

Many times, victims will not recognize the symptoms of frostbite until it is too late. Frostbite can result in the loss of limbs, ears, noses, and other body parts, and in some extreme situations, even death. 

Dealing With a Frostbite Victim

Below are several steps to dealing with and helping a frostbite victim.

It is important not to subject yourself to potential frostbite while helping another individual. 

1.     Most importantly, stay safe! It's important to make sure that no one else is injured by the cold. Only help a victim of frostbite if you can do so safely. Follow universal precautions and wear personal protective equipment if you have it.

2.     Remove the victim from the cold as soon as possible. DO NOT attempt to thaw frostbitten tissues if there is a possibility they could freeze again.

3.     Fill a shallow container with enough water to cover the frostbitten body part. The water should be about 98 to 105 degrees (normal body temperature or a little warmer).

4.     Continue to refresh the water in the container as it cools. Keep the water at the same temperature as consistently as possible, as it must remain warm. It should take about half an hour to thaw the frostbitten tissue this way.

5.     As soon as feasible, get the victim to medical assistance - even after thawing frostbite.

Tips For Dealing With Frostbite

1.     DO NOT allow thawed tissue to freeze again. The more often tissue freezes and thaws, the deeper the damage. If the victim will soon be exposed to freezing temperatures again, wait to treat frostbite.

2.     NEVER rub or massage frostbitten tissue. Rubbing frostbitten tissue will result in more severe damage.

3.     DO NOT use any heating devices, stoves, or fires to treat frostbite. Victims cannot feel the frostbitten tissue and can thus be burned easily.

4.     In a pinch, body heat can be used to thaw mild frostbite or frost nip (tissues that are not quite frozen yet). For example, you can place mildly frostbitten fingers under the arm to keep warm.

Source:

Markenson D, Ferguson JD, Chameides L, Cassan P, Chung K-L, Epstein J, Gonzales L, Herrington RA, Pellegrino JL, Ratcliff N, Singer A. "Part 17: first aid: 2010 American Heart Association and American Red Cross Guidelines for First Aid." Circulation. 2010;122(suppl 3):S934 –S946.

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