Explained: Frostbite levels of severity

Less severe forms of can be treated at home while more severe cases may lead to amputation.

Frostbite occurs when the top layer of your skin and underlying tissues freeze and is most common on the fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin.

Exposed skin is most vulnerable to frostbite, but covered skin can also be affected, so it’s vital for everyone to know the signs and symptoms of frostbite when venturing out into extreme cold.


  • Cold and prickly-feeling skin
  • Numbness
  • Unusual skin color
  • Hard or waxy-looking skin
  • Joint and muscle stiffness
  • Blistering after rewarming, in severe cases

Stages of frostbite

Frostnip: First-degree frostbite (self-treatable)

Frostnip causes no permanent damage to skin. Symptoms include cold skin and a prickling feeling, followed by numbness and inflamed or discolored skin. As frostnip worsens, skin may become hard or waxy looking.

It can be treated by warming skin in warm water.

Superficial: Second-degree frostbite (seek medical treatment)

In this stage, skin turns from red to pale, and even blue. Your skin may feel warm internally, but when touched it will feel hard and frozen.

The internal warmth is a sign that tissue damage is beginning to occur. Your doctor will give you pain medication, re-warm the affected area, and wrap it. After treatment, blisters may develop, as well as a burning or stinging sensation.

Deep: Third-degree frostbite (seek medical treatment)

This stage affects all levels of skin tissue, causing it to turn splotchy-blue and feel numb. Muscles of the affected region may not work properly.

Deep frostbite requires immediate medical attention. A doctor will re-warm the area, administer pain medication, wrap the area, and may provide IV fluids. After being re-warmed, the affected area will appear black and feel hard. Blisters may develop. The physician will determine the best course of action. If tissue damage is severe enough, amputation, though the last option, may be the only form of treatment.

Anyone experiencing second- or third-degree frostbite, seek medical attention by heading to the emergency room or urgent care.


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