Frostbite: When You Can Treat it at Home, and When You Need to See a Doctor

Updated December 31, 2022

We are in the heart of winter which can be picturesque when a fresh blanket of snow falls. Many adults and children look forward to outdoor winter activities — especially skiing, skating and sledding. But, it is important to be safe when outdoors in winter because frostbite can set in quickly. If you are enjoying exterior winter activities and suspect frostbite, when do you need to seek medical attention? It can be hard to know if you aren’t sure what you’re looking for, so let’s break down everything you need to know about frostbite.

“Frostbite occurs when the skin and the underlying tissues are damaged by windy near-freezing or freezing temperatures,” said Shalva V. Kakabadze, MD, a Family Medicine and Wound Care Physician at Penn Highlands Healthcare. “There are three stages of frostbite. The early stage, called frostnip, doesn’t cause any permanent damage, and it can usually be treated at home. As frostbite sets in, however, it can permanently damage your skin, tissue, even down to your muscles and bones.”

Because frostbite can quickly become dangerous, especially to the elderly and people with pre-existing circulatory illnesses, it’s important to recognize the symptoms of frostnip, the earliest stage of the process, so you can take immediate action. Symptoms of frostnip include:

  • Cold skin
  • Itching, stinging, burning or prickling feeling
  • Numbness
  • Skin turns pale yellow or white

If you experience any of the symptoms of frostnip, you should immediately seek shelter and gradually warm the affected areas. Do not rub or massage the area, which can cause further damage. Instead, rewarm your skin in warm—not hot—water. Test the temperature of the water with an area that has not been affected; if your skin is numb, you will be unable to determine if the water is too hot, and you risk burning yourself. As your skin gradually rewarms, it may become red and you may feel a tingling or burning sensation. This is normal, and it should dissipate within an hour.

Symptoms of intermediate and advanced frostbite are much more concerning, and you should seek medical attention right away. Symptoms include:

  • Skin becomes hard
  • Skin appears shiny or waxy
  • When skin thaws, blisters may form
  • Skin turns dark
  • Increased pain, swelling, inflammation or discharge
  • Fever
  • New, unexplained symptoms

If you suspect you have intermediate or advanced frostbite, you should go to the nearest emergency department. There, the staff will try to restore blood flow and stop further damage. They may recommend an X-ray or another scan to determine if there’s any serious damage to the bone or muscle.

“Frostbite can occur in just five minutes, and the damage can be severe,” said Dr. Kakabadze. “It’s critical that you pay careful attention to the possible signs of frostbite and take immediate action if you notice symptoms.”

Penn Highlands Healthcare offers immediate primary care for minor injuries and illnesses, with no appointment needed, at its QCare Walk-In Clinics in Brookville, Clarion, Emporium, Clearfield, DuBois, Huntingdon, Philipsburg, Punxsutawney, Ridgway and St. Marys. For more information, visit QCare Walk-in Clinics..

Frostbite Story
Since frostbite can occur in just five minutes and the damage can be severe, it is important to take immediate action if you notice symptoms when enjoying cold weather activities.