What Are the Treatments for Frostbite?

When the skin is exposed to below-freezing temperatures, frostbite–damage to the outer tissues and underlying structures–can occur. At home, treatment involves first aid to slowly warm and clean the affected area(s). In the hospital, treatment typically involves continued warming and administration of pain medication and antibiotics. Over the long-term, regular removal of dead skin is vital to helping frostbite heal.

Home Treatment

An individual with suspected frostbite may be treated at home in the absence of immediate medical assistance. The affected person should first be protected from further cold and exposure. Any wet clothing should be removed, and he should be wrapped in a blanket. Frostbitten hands or feet should be placed in warm water that is between 104 and 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit, advises the Mayo Clinic. Because frostbitten skin is numb, it should not be exposed to sources of direct heat like a fire or heating pad, as the individual will not be able to feel if he is being burned.

According to the Merck Manuals Online Medical Library, affected areas of skin should not be rubbed in an effort to warm them as this can cause further damage to the skin’s tissues. Once thawed, feet should be wrapped and covered in sterile dressings. To avoid skin damage, thawed feet should not be walked on. Frostbitten fingers and toes should be separated before they are wrapped in dressings.

Thawing the frostbitten area and then re-freezing it will cause further damage, so the National Institutes of Health advises to wait to warm the skin until the person is in a location where he can remain warm throughout treatment.

Hospital Treatment

In a hospital setting, doctors treat frostbite by warming the skin in a water bath in sessions lasting 15 to 30 minutes each, according to the Mayo Clinic. After warming, frostbitten areas are wrapped in sterile bandages and sometimes elevated to reduce swelling.

Intravenous pain medication may be administered during the warming treatments, as the treatments can cause intense burning, stinging and prickling. Oral anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and topical gels containing aloe vera may also be used to reduce swelling. To prevent or treat infection, antibiotics may also be administered.

Long-Term Treatment

For a person with moderate frostbite, daily immersion in a whirlpool bath for up to several months may help shed dead skin from the affected area and improve blood flow to remaining healthy tissue. However, in cases of severe frostbite, dead and damaged tissue may need to be removed medically. According to the Mayo Clinic, a physician may use a tool to mechanically debride, or remove, this unhealthy tissue. Alternatively, surgical removal of skin or amputation of body parts may be required if gangrene has caused superficial skin and underlying tissues to die. Such an operation is sometimes necessary to prevent the spread of infection throughout the body.

About this Author

Based in New York City, Tricia Mangan began her writing career in 2001. She has co-authored a National Cancer Institute report and a number of research articles that have appeared in medical journals. Tricia holds a Master of Arts in clinical psychology from Stony Brook University and boasts diverse clinical, research and teaching experience.