Frostbite: How to treat and what to do

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Frostbite happens when parts of the skin and other tissues freeze due to low temperatures. 

Frostbite usually affects the fingers and toes as they are the parts of the body furthest from the heart.

If someone has severe frostbite then they might permanently lose all feeling in that part of their body.

Frostbite can also lead to gangrene, when the blood vessels and soft tissues become permanently damaged leading to death of the tissue.

Frostbite usually happens in freezing or cold and windy weather. People who cannot move around are more likely to get it. Someone with frostbite will probably have hypothermia, so be prepared to treat them for that too.

If you think someone has frostbite, there are four key things to look for:

1. ‘Pins and needles’ to begin with

2. Paleness, followed by numbness

3. Hardening and stiffening of the skin

4. Change in skin colour: first white, then blotchy and blue. On recovery, the skin may be red, hot, painful and blistered. If they get gangrene, the tissue may become black due to the loss of blood supply and death of the tissue.

What to do:

• First, encourage them to put their hands in their armpits. Then help move them indoors or to somewhere warm.

• Once inside, gently remove anything constricting like rings, gloves or boots.

• Next, warm the body part with your hands on your lap, or under their armpits. Don’t rub it though because this could damage their skin tissue. (If there is a danger of it refreezing then don’t warm it up yet as this can cause more damage).

• Place the body part in warm (not hot) water at around 40°C (104°F) and be careful not to put it near direct heat as this can cause more damage. Dry it carefully and put on a light dressing, ideally a gauze bandage from your first aid kit.

• Once you’ve done that, help them to raise their limb to reduce swelling, with cushions or a sling for instance.

• Advise them to take some painkillers if they have some (paracetamol for example).

• Then take or send them to hospital, keeping their limb raised.

For those looking for quick, easily accessible first aid information, the St John Ambulance app is available free on smartphones and the website ( offers demo videos, an interactive game, and lots of free advice.

For more information about first aid courses please call 08700 10 49 50.