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Frostbite: Care Instructions

Your Care Instructions

Frostbite occurs when a person is exposed to freezing temperatures for too long. Frostbite is described by degree, from first degree through fourth degree.

  • First-degree frostbite freezes the outer part of the skin, and it usually does not cause lasting problems.
  • Second-degree frostbite freezes all layers of the skin. It causes numbness followed by aching and throbbing pain. Blisters appear, filled with clear or milky fluid.
  • Third-degree frostbite freezes the deep layers of skin and tissues below the skin. The skin turns white, pink-purple, or blue-grey and is hard and frozen "like a block of wood."
  • Fourth-degree frostbite freezes muscles, tendons, and bones. Patches of red or blue skin turn dry, black, and rubbery. Blisters may appear as small blood spots under the skin.

Treatment for frostbite includes relieving pain and quickly rewarming the frostbitten body parts (if there is no risk of the body parts freezing again). This can help prevent problems such as infection, dead tissue, or even amputation of the frozen part.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How can you care for yourself at home?

  • If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.
  • Take pain medicines exactly as directed.
    • If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
    • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, take an over-the-counter medicine, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve), to reduce pain and swelling. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
    • Do not take two or more pain medicines at the same time unless the doctor told you to.
  • Protect skin that has been injured by frostbite.
    • Do not expose frostbitten skin to cold temperatures.
    • Sunscreen and protective clothing can protect frostbitten skin from damage by the sun.
    • Do not rub or massage the injured area.
  • Do not disturb blisters or other sores.
  • Apply aloe vera to your skin as directed by your doctor.
  • Do not smoke. Smoking can interfere with healing. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Avoid alcohol. It can slow recovery.

When should you call for help?

Call your doctor or nurse call line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Any injured body part is cool or pale or changes colour.
  • Your pain gets worse.
  • You have signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Red streaks leading from the wound.
    • Pus draining from the wound.
    • Fever.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse call line if:

  • You do not get better as expected.

Where can you learn more?

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Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.