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Tips to Prevent, Detect and Treat Frostbite

Learn your risk factors to protect you and your family

man in a snowy scene with a facemask and scarf covering his mouth

Richard Legner/Getty Images

Body parts most vulnerable to frostbite are nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes.

With record-setting cold snaps affecting millions across the country, it is more important than ever to be aware and prepared for the risk of frostbite. It is especially crucial to look out for older family members who may be more at risk.

Frostbite is a bodily injury caused by exposure to extremely cold temperatures, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Freezing temps can result in loss of feeling and color in affected areas of your body, and most often affects your extremities. Frostbite can even permanently damage your body, and in severe cases may lead to amputation.

Risk factors 

Risks of developing frostbite include:

  • Having poor blood circulation
  • Not properly dressing for extremely cold temperatures. (Alzheimer's and dementia patients may need extra guidance on how to dress appropriately, and older people in general may not have access to proper food, clothing or heating.)
  • Staying outdoors for long periods (homeless people, hikers, hunters, etc.)
  • Drinking alcohol in excess or using illicit drugs

Prevention

Try to stay indoors as much as possible when the weather is extremely cold. If you must go outside, dress properly, and make sure that loved ones at high risk are also dressed appropriately. 

When going outside in cold temperatures be sure to wear:

  • A scarf or knit mask that covers your face and mouth
  • Mittens or gloves
  • Water-resistant boots
  • A hat
  • A water-resistant coat
  • Several layers of loose-fitting clothing

Make sure that the body parts most often hit by frostbite are covered in warm, dry clothing: nose, ears, toes, cheeks, chin and fingers. 

Detecting frostbite

At the first signs of redness or pain on your skin the CDC advises getting out of the cold and protecting any exposed skin, as this could be the early stages of frostbite. Other indicators include:

  •     a white or grayish-yellow skin area
  •     skin that feels unusually firm or waxy
  •     numbness

It may be difficult to detect frostbite on yourself because the frozen tissue on your skin is numb. So pay attention if someone else says that you are displaying warning signs, and be sure to look out for your loved ones as well.

Treatment

Seek medical care if you detect symptoms of frostbite, the CDC says. It is also important to first determine whether the victim is showing signs of hypothermia, which is a more serious medical condition caused by prolonged exposure to cold weather and requires emergency medical assistance.

Do

If there are no signs of hypothermia and immediate medical care is not available, the CDC recommends the following steps to treat frostbite:

  • Get into a warm room and remove wet clothing
  • Immerse the affected area in warm but not hot water. (Keep the temperature at a comfortable level for unaffected parts of the body.)
  • Warm the frostbitten area using body heat, for example inserting frostbitten fingers in your armpit.
  • Stay warm under blankets and layers of dry clothing

Do not

  • Walk on frostbitten feet or toes unless absolutely necessary; this increases the damage.
  • Rub the frostbitten skin with snow or massage it — you may cause more damage.
  • Use artificial heat sources such as a heating pad, heat lamp, stove, fireplace or radiators. The affected areas of your skin are numb and could be easily burned, according to the CDC. 

It is important to remember that home remedies are not substitutes for proper medical care. Frostbite should be evaluated by a health care provider, and hypothermia should be treated as a medical emergency. 

Be prepared

The CDC recommends taking a first aid and emergency resuscitation course to prepare for cold-weather health problems and preparing your home and car for winter emergencies. 

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