How to treat frostbite

If this is an emergency, please call 000 immediately.

What is frostbite?

If you or someone else has suspected frost bite, it’s important not to rub or massage the frozen area, or apply radiant heat (such as fire).

Frostbite occurs when the skin and underlying tissues become frozen as a result of exposure to below-freezing temperatures. This requires rapid but careful rewarming of the tissues.

This guide is regularly updated and aligns with the current edition of Australian First Aid
(4th edition, 7/2011)

Signs and Symptoms

 

      • 'Pins and needles'
      • Paleness of the area and numbness
      • Hardened and stiffened skin
      • Colour change to the skin. The skin may change from white to mottled and blue. On recovery, the skin may be red, hot, painful and blistered. When gangrene occurs, the skin may become black due to the loss of blood supply.

 

What to do

Follow DRSABCD.

 

Move the patient to a warm, dry place. If the feet or legs are affected do not let the patient walk.

Gently remove the patient’s clothing and jewellery from the affected limb. Handle the frozen tissue very gently to prevent further tissue damage.

As soon as possible, put the whole affected limb in a bath of warm water between 40°C–42°C, for 15–30 minutes.

The aim is to minimise tissue loss. Lower water temperature will be less beneficial to tissue survival; higher water temperatures may produce a burn wound and increase the injury.

Keep adding warm water to maintain a constant temperature. During rewarming, ask the patient to gently move the injured limb. Do not massage the affected area.

Keep the limb in the water until it is pink or does not improve any more. This may take up to 40 minutes and may be painful.

Keep the limb warm. Do not allow the limb to become refrozen. DO NOT break any blisters that form.

After rewarming, cover the injured area with a light, loose nonstick dressing, preferably clean, dry, non-fluffy material (eg plastic cling film).

Check the patient for shock, and treat if necessary.

Resources

Frostbite fact sheet

DRSABCD poster

Related advice

Hypothermia

Here’s a quick first aid fact sheet about the signs and symptoms of hypothermia, and what to do if you suspect you or someone else is experiencing hypothermia.

DRSABCD Action Plan

The St John DRSABCD Action Plan is crucial in assessing whether a patient has any life-threatening conditions and if any immediate first aid is necessary.

Heat stroke

Heat stroke is potentially life-threatening and immediate medical aid is needed.

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