What To Know About Frostbite

Author: Liz Kovac

Frostbite occurs when the top layer of your skin and underlying tissues freeze. Frostbite 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. “Many don’t even realize they have frostbite, so it is important to know the signs,” said Dr. Joseph Zajchowski, Chief Medical Officer at McLaren Lapeer Region.


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


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. You can self-treat frostnip by warming your 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 you feel 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, and you may also experience a burning or stinging sensation.

Deep: Third-Degree Frostbite (Seek medical treatment)

This stage affects all levels of your skin tissue, causing skin 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, give you 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. Your doctor will determine the best course of action. If tissue damage to an area, like a toe, is severe, the toe may need to be amputated.

If you experience second or third-degree frostbite, seek medical attention by heading to the emergency room or urgent care.

Check-in to the emergency room from home by visiting www.mclaren.org/LapeerER.