Frostbite versus hypothermia – what should you do

Frostbite versus hypothermia – what should you do

Frostbite versus hypothermia – what should you do (3)

Both conditions occur as a result of a dramatically reduced body temperature in response to cold. Both are classified as cold-related medical emergencies.

At the first signs of frostbite, a person should:

  • Find a warmer environment as soon as possible (e.g. an enclosed room or some form of shelter from the elements).
  • Unless it cannot be helped, a person should try not to walk when the feet or toes are affected by frostbite, as this can increase damage.
  • Use warm (not hot) water that is comfortable to the touch (tip: test water temperature on areas of the body not affected by frostbite) to rewarm damaged tissues or areas affected by frostbite.
  • Alternatively, body heat (i.e. using for instance, heat from warmer body areas like the armpits) used to warm hands and fingers can help. Placing the palms of the hands over affected ears can also aid in warming them.
  • Take care not to try and re-warm any affected areas using heat mechanisms that are too hot (increasing the risk of burning and further damage) – such as heating pads, stove tops, hairdryers, radiators, fireplaces or heat lamps.
  • Take care not to rub / massage frostbite affected areas, as this can result in further tissue damage. Do not attempt to pop or break any blisters that have developed.
  • Seek medical treatment urgently.

If there is a chance that a person’s body may freeze again once having been warmed (i.e. before reaching a medical facility), it is best not to try and warm affected tissues. Warming and refreezing can result in more damage than leaving the frostbitten portions of the body alone before medical treatment is applied. If affected areas have already been warmed (thawed), wrap them up with warm towels, clothing or anything soft and dry before heading to a medical facility, in order to prevent further freezing.

It is vitally important that if a person displays any signs of hypothermia, a bath or warm water should not be used in an attempt to rewarm them as this can worsen symptoms caused by a very low core body temperature. It is best to get the individual to an emergency medical facility as soon as possible.

At the first signs of hypothermia, initial care should involve:

  • Where possible, taking a person’s temperature reading (if around or below 35 °C / 95 °F, emergency medical assistance is necessary).
  • Trying to move the affected person to a warmer environment (e.g. a room or shelter that is also dry)
  • Removing any wet clothing.
  • Trying to warm the body, starting in the centre of the body first, concentrating on the chest / abdominal area, then the neck, head and groin areas. If available, an electric blanket works well. Alternatively, skin-to-skin contact (body heat) beneath loose and dry blanket (or clothing, towels or sheets) layers also helps.
  • Offering the affected person a warm beverage (if they are conscious) as this can help to increase core body temperature quickly (no alcoholic drinks should be given).
  • Keeping a person warm (e.g. wrapped in a blanket) and dry – including the neck and head.
  • Seeking urgent medical attention.


3. Connecticut State Department of Public Health. 2010. Hypothermia and Frostbite:  [Accessed 08.11.2017]

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