Frostbites occur especially in the extremities of the body (ears, nose, fingers, toes, cheeks). When the temperature outside the body drops, circulation on the skin decreases as the body prioritises keeping the core of the body warm.
The risk of frostbite increases with cold, humid wind, wet clothes, smoking and various illnesses and medications that affect the peripheral circulation.
In superficial frostbites, the skin tingles and may feel painful. The skin looks waxy and pale and feels hard. In the next stage, the skin will turn numb and pain is no longer felt.
In deep frostbites, the subcutaneous tissue is also damaged. The skin feels numb and hard. A limb with a cold injury cannot take weight or squeeze, the skin may turn blue and swollen. Blisters may also appear on the skin. The frozen area of skin may even become gangrenous.
With more severe cold injuries, medical assistance must be sought immediately. Most of the tissue damage is caused by infection during thawing.
Self-care and first aid
Small local and superficial frostbites can be easily treated at home. The important thing is to stay warm and sheltered from the wind. You can warm up the frostbite by gently pressing it with hand, but do not rub or massage the area.
You can immerse the frostbitten area in 37–40-celsius water for 20–30 minutes. Keep warming the skin area until normal colour and sensation returns and the hardness of the skin disappears. Do not warm up frostbite in front of an open fire, as this may lead to a burn. Cover the frostbitten area with dry clothing.
You can also take painkillers, because the frostbite may be surprisingly painful when it thaws. Hot drinks or soup may also feel comfortable. Avoid drinking alcohol and smoking during treatment.
Avoid using cold protection creams as these may only make things worse.
When should you seek medical advice?
Seek medical advice if
- the normal skin colour, sensation and temperature do not return in an hour
- blisters appear on the skin or you believe the frostbite is worse than superficial
- the frozen area is large, such as an entire limb or a large part of it
If the overall body temperature of the person has dropped substantially and they have hypothermia, medical treatment is needed urgently. In the case of an emergency call 112.
This Self-care instruction has been produced in collaboration with Duodecim Terveyskirjasto