Frostbite Basics

Time-tested Treatment

If you get frostbite, the course of treatment is simple: Rapidly warm the frostbitten areas with warm water (usually about 104 degrees Fahrenheit). If the water is too cold, fragile tissue will sustain further damage. Too hot and the water could injure the skin. Why water? Frostbite causes a loss of sensation, and dry heat, such as a heating pad, could burn the skin before you even realize it [source: Time].

A blood-thinning medication may also help frostbite victims. The June 2007 issue of Archives of Surgery reported promising results from a small study using the anti-clotting agent to improve blood flow and reduce the risk of amputation as patients recovered from severe frostbite [source: Minkel]. But not everyone is a good candidate for this type of therapy. Head injuries and other medical conditions preclude the use of blood thinners [source: WCCO].

After frostbitten tissue is warmed, the next biggest risk is infection; this means remaining in a sterile environment is vital. Other than that, recovery is a waiting game. The once-frozen tissue will swell and turn red. It may even blister and become blackened. Dead tissue will need to be removed. Sometimes this results in amputation.

When it comes to frostbite, knowing what not to do is essential to successful treatment. Keep frozen tissue away from heat sources until it can be thawed rapidly. Slowly thawing the tissue causes limb-altering damage. So does letting tissue thaw and refreeze. And, unlike in the snowy rescue scenes in movies, do not clap frozen hands together to warm them. Hitting or massaging the frozen tissue adds to the damage. So does walking on frozen feet [source: WebMD].

Even with timely, by-the-textbook treatment, frostbite can create long-term complications. Although some people with minor injuries recover completely, others with deeper tissue damage may have continued pain or numbness in once-frostbitten areas. The skin may never regain its original color and arthritis or skin cancer may develop [source: University of Maryland Medical Center].

The best treatment is to avoid frostbite in the first place. We'll tell you how to prevent it, next.