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Frostbite is caused by exposure to cold temperatures for prolonged periods, which causes damage to the skin and underlying tissues.

Symptoms of frostbite may include:

  • Pins and needles sensation, followed by numbness
  • Pale and hard skin
  • Aching, throbbing or lack of sensation in the affected area
  • Red and very painful skin/tissue as unthawing occurs
  • Blisters and blackened, dead tissue (severe frostbite)

Areas with poorer circulation are most prone to frostbite, such as the nose, ears, hands and feet. When frostbite extends to the blood vessels and damages them, the affected area may not recover and amputation is often necessary.

To treat frostbite:

  • Look for signs and symptoms of hypothermia and treat first (see section on Hypothermia above). Call 9-1-1 immediately if frostbite is severe or if there are signs and symptoms of hypothermia.
  • Bring the victim into a warm, dry place.
  • Remove tight jewellery if fingers are affected, or socks and boots if feet are affected. Remove any wet clothing to prevent further cooling.
  • If medical assistance is close by: wrap the affected area with dry gauze, separating fingers and toes.
  • If medical assistance is not close by, you will need to rewarm the affected areas.
  • Soak affected areas in warm water for 20 to 30 minutes (do NOT use hot water). Keep changing the water as it cools. If the victim’s face is affected, apply warm compresses one after another. Pain, color changes and changes in sensation will occur as the tissue warms. Warming is complete when the affected tissue is soft again and full feeling returns.
  • Once fingers and toes have thawed, wrap them in dry gauze, being careful to separate the digits.
  • Move the injured tissue as little as possible.
  • If the frostbite is severe and affects more than one area, give warm fluids (NOT alcohol) to warm the victim and replenish fluids.
  • Do NOT break any blisters that form
  • Do NOT rewarm if there is a risk of refreezing- wait until you can get medical assistance)
  • Do NOT use direct heat to thaw damaged tissue (i.e. hair dryer, heating pad)
  • Do NOT massage the affected area
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