Frostbite: Causes, Symptoms, Stages, Treatment, & Prevention

Medically Reviewed by Caroline Duncan, MD
Written by Shaheen Naser

Long exposure to extreme cold temperatures results in a person developing frostbite. Commonly seen in your fingers, nose, ears, and toes, frostbite can spread throughout the entire body. While in most cases, superficial frostbite goes away on its own, if left untreated for a long time, it can lead to serious health complications. In this article, we look at some of the natural remedies and tips you can try at home to treat frostbite at home.

What Is Frostbite?

Exposing your body to temperatures below the freezing point of your skin can freeze your tissues, causing frostbite. Anyone is susceptible to this condition, including those living in cold climates. Your ears, nose, hands, toes, and feet are the most vulnerable to frostbite.

Frostbites can either be superficial or deep. Superficial frostbites occur on the surface and are comparatively less severe than deep frostbites.

Stages Of Frostbites

There are several stages of frostbite.

  • Frostnip

This is the first stage of frostbite, where your skin turns pale or red and very cold. Prolonged exposure to low temperatures can cause pain and a tingling sensation with no permanent damage.

  • Superficial Frostbite

You know your frostbite is proceeding to the second stage if it first appears as reddened skin that turns pale or white. Although your skin may remain soft, you will start noticing the formation of ice crystals in your tissues.

  • Severe (Deep) Frostbite

As the frostbite progresses, it affects all your skin layers, including the deep tissues. You will experience pain, numbness, and sensations of cold.

The following are some of the common signs and symptoms associated with the superficial and deep frostbite.

Signs And Symptoms Of Frostbite

If you are suffering from superficial frostbite, you may experience:

  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Itching
  • Cold sensations in the affected area

Also, your skin may appear white or frozen.

Deep frostbite, on the other end, may result in:

  • An initial decrease in sensation that may be completely lost over time
  • Swelling
  • Blood-filled blistering
  • Skin turning yellow or white with a waxy appearance
  • Significant pain when the area is rewarmed
  • Skin looking dead or turning black

When exposed to an extremely cold climate, your body undergoes changes to keep you alive. Frostbite is a result of such changes.

Causes And Risk Factors For Frostbites

The most common causes of frostbite are:

  • Constriction of blood vessels (your body signals blood flow to vital organs)
  • As the temperature drops, your blood vessels get dilated for a short period before constricting again. But when your body temperature drops below 98.6°F, your blood vessels constrict permanently to prevent cold blood from returning to your internal organs. Such a scenario indicates the beginning of frostbite.

Frostbite is caused in two ways:

  • Cell death at the time of exposure to cold
  • Further cell death and deterioration due to lack of oxygen

Some factors that may increase frostbite risk include:

  • Medical conditions like dehydration, diabetes, exhaustion, and poor blood flow that impair your response to low temperatures
  • Alcohol/drug abuse
  • Smoking
  • Stress, anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses
  • A history of frostbite or cold injury
  • Age – older adults and infants are at a higher risk of developing frostbite.
  • Being at a high altitude, which reduces the oxygen supply to your skin.

Let’s now understand how you can diagnose frostbite.

How Are Frostbites Diagnosed?

Frostbites are diagnosed based on your physical signs and symptoms. A doctor analyzes your skin appearance and reviews your recent activities (where you might have gotten exposed to cold).

Your physician may also conduct tests like an X-ray, bone scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine whether the frostbite has caused damage to your bone or muscles.

Since frostbite can occur to anyone, knowing certain simple home remedies can help. Here you go!

How To Treat Frostbite Naturally

  1. Warm Water
  2. Essential Oils
  3. Epsom Salt
  4. Vitamin E

5 Natural Treatments For Frostbite

1. Warm Water

You Will Need

A bucket of warm (not hot) water

What You Have To Do

Soak your frostbitten hands/feet in warm water until your symptoms disappear.

How Often You Should Do This

Do this as and when required.

Why This Works

Soaking the frostbitten body part in warm water for a few minutes helps in re-initiating blood flow to it. This works as an immediate remedy that can prevent worsening of a frostbite (1).

2. Essential Oils

a. Helichrysum Oil

Shutterstock

You Will Need
  • 3-4 drops of helichrysum oil
  • 1 teaspoon of coconut oil (or any other carrier oil)
What You Have To Do
  1. Mix three drops of helichrysum oil with a teaspoon of coconut oil.
  2. Apply the mixture to the affected areas and leave it on.
How Often You Should Do This

You must do this 1 to 2 times daily.

Why This Works

The anti-inflammatory properties of helichrysum oil can heal the blisters from frostbites. The oil also relieves pain and redness (2).

b. Cypress Oil

Shutterstock

You Will Need
  • 3-4 drops of cypress oil
  • 1 teaspoon of coconut oil (or any other carrier oil)
What You Have To Do
  1. Mix three drops of cypress oil with a teaspoon of any carrier oil.
  2. Apply the blend to the affected area and allow it to work for 30 to 60 minutes.
How Often You Should Do This

You must do this 1 to 2 times daily.

Why This Works

Reduced blood circulation often causes frostbites, and cypress oil helps here by enhancing the circulation (3).

3. Epsom Salt

Shutterstock

You Will Need
  • 1 cup of Epsom salt
  • Water
What You Have To Do
  1. Fill your bath with water and add some Epsom salt to it.
  2. Soak in the Epsom salt bath for 20 minutes.
How Often You Should Do This

You must do this once daily for optimum benefits.

Why This Works

Epsom salt contains magnesium that helps in fighting inflammation. It relieves blisters, pain, redness, and other symptoms (4).

4. Petroleum Jelly (Vaseline)

Shutterstock

You Will Need

Petroleum jelly (as required)

What You Have To Do
  1. Apply a little Vaseline to the affected areas of your skin.
  2. Reapply as and when required.
How Often You Should Do This

Do this 2 to 3 times daily or as required.

Why This Works

Petroleum jelly moisturizes your skin and forms a protective outer layer. This accelerates healing and also prevents infections.

5. Vitamin E Oil

Shutterstock

You Will Need

Vitamin E oil (as required)

What You Have To Do
  1. Take some vitamin E oil in your palm and apply it all over the frostbite.
  2. Leave it on and allow it to be absorbed by your skin.
  3. You can also use this as a preventive remedy.
How Often You Should Do This

You must do this 1 to 2 times daily.

Why This Works

Vitamin E oil moisturizes your skin and aids in its repair and regeneration, thereby healing frostbite (5).

These remedies work great. But prevention is the key. Following are some tips that can help you prevent frostbites altogether.

Prevention Tips

  • Limit your time outside when the weather is cold, wet, or windy.
  • Dress in layers of loose and warm clothing.
  • Wear a hat or headband meant for covering your ears to protect yourself from the extreme cold.
  • Opt for mittens instead of gloves.
  • Wear socks/sock liners that provide warmth as well as insulation.
  • Keep a check on your skin to look out for the early signs of frostbite.

Long exposure to extreme cold temperatures results in frostbite. Although frostbite subsides on its own, certain home remedies can accelerate healing. Using warm water to soak the area affected by frostbite can help. In addition, essential oils like helichrysum oil and cypress oil, Epsom salt, petroleum jelly, and vitamin E oil help reduce frostbites. You can reduce the risk of frostbite by dressing in warm clothing, limiting your time outside in cold weather, wearing socks, and opting for mittens.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the medical treatments for frostbite?

Medical treatments for frostbite include taking medicines to relieve pain, removing the damaged tissue, and rewarming the affected area.

What happens if you leave frostbite untreated?

Untreated frostbite can cause growth defects (especially in children) and infection, tetanus, gangrene, or even permanent loss of sensation in the affected area. Prolonged exposure to cold can also lead to hypothermia (a potentially dangerous drop in your body temperature).

How long does it take to get frostbite?

At 0 degrees, you can get frostbite in less than 30 minutes.

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Caroline Duncan

(M.D)
Caroline C. Duncan graduated from the Medical University of South Carolina in May of 2017, where her interests were primarily... more

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