Frostbite Symptoms and Treatment

You might know that frostbite happens in fingers and toes. You might know it comes from being in really cold weather. You may even know it can come from improperly icing an injury. But do you know how to recognize frostbite?

Woman snowshoeingon snow field
deimagine / Getty Images


Early stages of frostbite look just like a burn. There's swelling, blistering, and redness. As frostbite progresses, the skin turns white or yellow. Eventually, it turns black. The best way to learn how to recognize frostbite is to see pictures of it.

Frostbite is literally caused by frozen tissues and fluids in the skin. As the tissues get colder, the damage leads to inflammation and swelling, just as is the case with a burn. Frostbite patients also complain of discomfort from the frostbite:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Loss of movement
  • Burning sensations

Because the signs and symptoms of frostbite look so similar to the signs of a burn from heat, chemicals, or the sun, it can be easy to confuse these injuries. Here are some common-sense ways to tell if an injury is frostbite or something else:

  • Cold, red, swollen toes after walking in snow for several hours: probable frostbite
  • Cold, blistered fingers after a day on the ski slopes: probable frostbite
  • What looks like a burn forming after icing a twisted ankle: possibly frostbite
  • Red, swollen nose after fishing for crab during December in the Bering Sea: frostbite
  • Can't feel your feet after climbing Mt. Everest: definitely frostbite

I'm being a little silly, but it's very important to consider the cold if you develop swelling and redness in your fingers or toes. Some patients completely overlook the possibility of frostbite until it's too late.

Early frostbite, sometimes called frostnip, is very treatable and often doesn't result in any permanent damage. Severe frostbite can lead to loss of skin and muscle. Just like burns, frostbite can be categorized as first-, second-, or third-degree frostbite.


Treating frostbite is a delicate warming procedure that really shouldn't be attempted without a medical professional unless there's no other option. As soon as frostbite is recognized, the most important thing to do is keep the area from being exposed to any more freezing temperatures. Rewarming it can be done later, but the longer the area is exposed to freezing temperatures, the deeper the frostbite goes.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. UpToDate. Frostbite. November 2018.

  2. Handford C, Buxton P, Russell K, et al. Frostbite: a practical approach to hospital management. Extrem Physiol Med. 2014;3:7. doi:10.1186/2046-7648-3-7

  3. National Health Service. Frostbite.

  4. Handford C, Thomas O, Imray CHE. Frostbite. Emerg Med Clin North Am. 2017;35(2):281-299. doi:10.1016/j.emc.2016.12.006.

  5. Sachs C, Lehnhardt M, Daigeler A, Goertz O. The Triaging and Treatment of Cold-Induced Injuries. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2015 Oct 30;112(44):741-7. doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2015.0741.

Additional Reading

By Rod Brouhard, EMT-P
Rod Brouhard is an emergency medical technician paramedic (EMT-P), journalist, educator, and advocate for emergency medical service providers and patients.