Frostbite occurs when the skin and tissue underneath the skin freeze. It can develop during prolonged exposure to cold weather at or below 0°C. Nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes are most at risk. Frostbite can lead to permanent damage.​

Last updated: 01 July 2011

What is frostbite?

  • Frostbite occurs when the skin and tissue underneath the skin freeze.
  • Nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes are most commonly affected.
  • Frostbite can lead to permanent damage and in severe cases may lead to amputation.

What are the symptoms?

  • The affected skin looks white or mottled.
  • The skin can feel unusually firm or waxy.
  • The person may experience pain, itchiness or numbness.
  • People with frostbite can be unaware of their condition as the affected area can be numb and not painful.
  • Blisters and swelling may develop.
  • Permanent damage to the affected area, depending on the severity of the frostbite.

How does it occur?

Frostbite can happen during prolonged exposure to cold weather at or below 0°C or even after a few minutes in extremely low temperatures.

Who is at risk?

Frostbite can affect anyone, those at higher risk include:
  • people over 75 years
  • babies and young children
  • people with poor circulation or diabetes
  • people with chronic physical or mental disabilities
  • people who work outdoors
  • people who are homeless
  • people who are wet from any cause.

How is it prevented?

  • Listen to the weather forecast and plan ahead: schedule warm-up breaks for outdoor workers, hold recess and breaks inside, limit the amount of time you spend outdoors.
  • Dress warmly in layers (wind-resistant jacket, mittens, boots, hat and scarf).
  • Stay dry (wet clothing chills the body rapidly).
  • Limit exposure to prolonged or extreme cold weather
  • Check frequently for signs of frostbite and get out of the cold at the first sign of redness or pain in any skin area and if you start feeling cold.
  • Alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine and certain medications will increase your susceptibility to cold.
  • For parents and carers of children, frequently check for wet clothing or footwear as this places the child at risk of a cold injury.

How is it diagnosed?

The diagnosis is usually made based on the person's symptoms and examination of the affected area.

How is it treated?

  • Get medical attention as soon as possible.
  • Reduce further exposure to cold and wind by seeking shelter and covering up exposed skin.
  • Get into a warm room as soon as possible and remove wet clothing.
  • Warm the area slowly using body heat or warm water at 40-42°C (do not use hot water).
  • Beware that thawing is painful.
  • Do not rub or massage (causes more damage).
  • Do not use direct heat (can burn the skin).
  • Do not walk on frostbitten toes or feet if possible.
  • Don't smoke cigarettes as nicotine constricts the blood vessels and may worsen the damage.
  • Beware that damage can occur when an area is warmed and then exposed again to cold.

Further information

In NSW call 1300 066 055 to talk to your local Public Health Unit.​

Current as at: Friday 1 July 2011
Contact page owner: Environmental Health