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First Aid: Frostbite

Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD

First Aid

Exposure to below-freezing temperatures can cause frostbite, a rare but serious condition that needs emergency medical care. Frostbite can affect any area of the skin, and in extreme cold can develop within minutes.

Signs and Symptoms

  • aching pain or numbness, most often on hands, feet, face, and ears
  • skin that feels hard and waxy, with a white or grayish yellow color

What to Do

If you think your child has frostbite, call the doctor right away. Then:

  • Bring your child indoors immediately. Do not try to thaw frostbite unless you're in a warm place (warming and then re-exposing frozen skin to cold can cause permanent damage).
  • Remove wet clothing.
  • Don't rub frostbitten areas — treat them gently.
  • Don't use dry heat — such as a fireplace, oven, or heating pad — to thaw frostbite.
  • Don't break any blisters.
  • Warm the frostbitten parts in warm (not hot) water for about 30 minutes.
  • Place clean cotton balls between frostbitten fingers and toes after they've been warmed.
  • Loosely wrap warmed areas with clean bandages to prevent refreezing.
  • Give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain.

Get Emergency Medical Care if Your Child Has:

  • an area of skin that is turning white and hard

Think Prevention!

Stay updated on weather forecasts. Keep kids warm and dry in cold weather. Loose-fitting, layered warm clothes are best. Have kids wear well-insulated boots, thick socks, hats, scarves, and mittens. Ice packs applied directly to the skin can cause frostbite — always cover ice packs with a cloth before applying to the skin.

Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: July 2018