Can Frostbite Be Cured?
Frostbite is a curable, yet dangerous, condition that can cause permanent damage if the blood vessels are damaged.

Frostbite occurs when your skin and the tissues beneath it are damaged by exposure to freezing temperatures. It is a curable, yet dangerous, condition.

  • Warm the region gradually with body heat or warm (not hot) water. Be cautious of burning your skin, especially if you don't feel anything straight away.
  • Avoid rubbing or massaging the affected area, and seek medical assistance if the sensation does not return shortly.
  • Warming up a person with frostbite may be done in a whirlpool bath that may have an antibiotic added to it.
  • Warming baths should last 30 minutes and be repeated several times each day until the injured area shows signs of healing. Healing will be seen as enhanced skin color and growth of new skin.
  • Doctors may prescribe pain medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, opiates, or morphine. 
  • Antibiotics will be required to treat any associated infection.

In the most severe cases, a burn specialist will be required because frostbite has many of the same consequences as a high-temperature burn.

  • To prevent clots from forming in the frozen blood arteries, a doctor may use thrombolytic therapy that involves injecting clot-dissolving medication.
  • Another treatment of frostbite is iloprost which dilates blood vessels.
  • Thrombolytic therapy and the use of iloprost produce the best outcomes when taken within 24 hours of acute cold exposure, according to research.
  • Debridement or removal of damaged tissue may be done to promote healing.
  • Surgery or amputation of the wounded body part(s) may be needed in severe cases. This is most frequently done on the toes and fingers.

Frostbite can occur in any area of the body. The hands, feet, nose, and ears are the most vulnerable to the condition.

  • If frostbite does not compromise your blood vessels, you may be able to recover completely.
  • If frostbite has damaged the blood vessels, the harm may be permanent. Gangrene is a possibility. This may need the removal of the damaged body part(amputation).

If you suspect frostbite, get emergency medical attention as soon as possible. Get out of the cold and into a warm place as soon as possible. Maintain a dry and warm environment, and do not expose the skin to extremely hot or warm conditions.

What are the signs and symptoms of frostbite?

Five symptoms of superficial frostbite include:

  1. Numbness
  2. Tingling
  3. Itching
  4. Cold sensations in the affected area
  5. White or frozen skin

Six symptoms of deep frostbite include:

  1. An initial decrease in sensation that may be completely lost over time
  2. Swelling
  3. Blood-filled blistering
  4. Skin turning yellow or white with a waxy appearance
  5. Significant pain when the area is rewarmed
  6. Skin looking dead or turning black

When exposed to an extremely cold climate, your body undergoes changes to keep you alive. Frostbite is a result of such changes.

Frostbite starts by producing pain and a burning sensation in the exposed areas. This is followed by numbness in the toes or feet and changes in skin color, from pale or red to bluish-gray or black.

People with a history of frostbite often get it again in the same place.

What are the common causes of frostbite?

Frostbite occurs on exposure to cold temperatures such as:

  • Cold weather conditions
  • Contact with snow, ice, or very cold surfaces (such as cold metals)
  • Contact with chilled liquids

During frostbite, blood vessel constriction (your body signals blood flow to vital organs) occurs.

  • When the temperature drops, your blood vessels widen briefly before contracting again.
  • However, when your body temperature falls below 98.6°F, your blood vessels constrict to prevent cold blood from returning to your internal organs. This scenario suggests the onset of frostbite.

Frostbite occurs in two ways:

  1. Cell death due to cold exposure
  2. Further cell death and degeneration due to oxygen deficiency


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What are the risk factors for frostbite?

Some factors that may increase frostbite risk include:

  • Medical conditions such as:
    • Dehydration
    • Diabetes
    • Exhaustion
    • Poor blood flow that impairs your response to low temperatures
    • A history of frostbite or cold injury
  • Lifestyle choices such as:
  • Other risk factors such as:
    • Older adults and infants are at a higher risk of frostbite
    • Being at a high altitude reduces oxygen availability

People who live or work outside are more likely to get frostbite due to their increased exposure to the cold

3 stages of frostbite

When it comes to cold weather injuries, the term “frostbite” is often used as a catchall. 

Three stages of frostbite include:

  1. Frostnip:
    • A milder instance of frostbite.
    • The skin turns blue; however, it may sometimes appear pale or white.
    • The person may experience pain to touch because only the top layer of their skin is frozen.
    • This stage is reversible and does not cause permanent tissue damage.
    • Treatments in this stage include:
      • Simple first-aid procedures such as limiting further cold exposure and rewarming are recommended.
      • The damaged area is rewarmed by soaking it in warm water for 15 to 30 minutes.
      • Heat sources such as stoves and heat pads are not recommended because they might cause burns.
      • When your skin warms up, you may experience pain or tingling. Pain can be relieved with over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen.
  2. Superficial frostbite:
    • There are injuries to the epidermis (the topmost skin layer) and subcutaneous tissue.
    • The skin hardens and feels frozen at this point.
    • This level of frostbite may not cause any damage if treated immediately and effectively.
    • When a person gets overheated, their skin may begin to blister and turn red.
    • Treatments in this stage include:
      • As quickly as feasible, the damaged areas should be warmed.
      • The doctor may give you pain relievers and intravenous (IV) fluids.
      • After the region has warmed up, the doctor will bandage it to protect it.
      • Blisters can form after rewarming; in such circumstances, the doctor may drain them.
      • Antibiotics are often administered if the blister appears to be infected.
  3. Deep frostbite:
    • Deep frostbite injuries occur when the damage extends beyond the subcutaneous tissue and into the muscles, nerves, tendons, or bones.
    • The severity of the damage influences the prognosis for recovery and long-term problems.
    • This is the most severe and dangerous stage of frostbite.
    • The skin may turn blue, and painful black blisters emerge on the skin that has been exposed to profound frostbite.
    • Treatments in this stage include:
      • The area is rewarmed, like with the prior stages.
      • The doctor will administer pain medication and IV fluids and wrap the affected area.
      • If you have developed blood-filled blisters, your doctor may prescribe a “clot-buster.” This increases the flow of blood to the affected area.
      • Due to tissue death, the region is black and hard after rewarming.
      • Large blisters may form after 24 to 48 hours.
      • Depending on the extent of the damage, the damaged area may require surgery to remove dead tissues (debridement), or it may be amputated.

Any tissue that has died due to the cold weather and has not been properly cared for can develop gangrene and may necessitate debridement or amputation by a doctor.

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Medically Reviewed on 3/2/2022
Image Source: iStock Images