How Long Does It Take to Get Frostbite? Frostbite FAQs

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

We all love playing in the snow during cold weather. But with freezing temperatures comes the risk of frostbite. So while we know to bundle up before stepping outside, it’s also important to be aware of early signs of frostbite.

Frostbite happens when the skin is exposed to extreme cold, causing damage to the blood vessels, nerves, and soft tissues. It can happen to anyone, so continue reading to learn about various aspects of frostbite, its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

What is frostbite?

Frostbite is a condition that occurs when the skin and underlying tissues freeze due to prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. It most commonly affects the fingers, toes, nose, ears, and chin.

The skin is composed of various layers that protect us from the elements and are a sense organ for touch.

Exposure to cold temperatures, combined with wind, dampness, and a lack of proper clothing, can cause the blood vessels in the skin to constrict, reducing blood flow to the affected area.

The cells die as the tissue continues to freeze, and the skin and underlying tissues become damaged.

Then, the skin becomes numb, red, blistered, and eventually blackens. The damage caused by frostbite can be permanent if left untreated. This means areas of your body affected by frostbite may never regain their full function or range of motion.

Symptoms of frostbite include:

  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Burning sensation
  • Pale or blue appearance of the skin
  • Swollen skin

If left untreated, frostbite can lead to amputation of the affected limb and permanent tissue damage.

Close-up of a hand holding ice as a way to describe how cold does it have to be to get frostbite

The risk of frostbite increases with the following:

  • Age
  • Living in a cold climate
  • Higher altitudes
  • Living with diabetes or peripheral vascular disease
  • Obesity or being underweight
  • Recent injury or surgery

How cold does it have to be to get frostbite?

The temperature when you can get frostbite depends on several factors, including the windchill, humidity, and level of activity. Generally speaking, frostbite can occur at temperatures as low as -15 F (-26 C) if the windchill is severe enough.

Frostbite is not only a function of the environmental temperature but also of the duration of exposure. An individual can develop frostbite in relatively mild temperatures over a prolonged period. So, being in low temperatures for an extended period, even with temperatures above freezing, can put you at risk of frostbite.

How long does it take to get frostbite?

The amount of time it takes for frostbite to develop can vary depending on the temperature and the exposure conditions, as well as the individual’s susceptibility. So, how long does it take for frostbite to set in?

In freezing temperatures, frostbite can occur in just a few minutes, especially in exposed areas, such as the fingers, toes, ears, and nose.

However, it can take several hours or even days of exposure in lower temperatures for frostbite to develop.

The duration of exposure to cold is not the only factor, as the body’s response can be different for each person. In addition, circulatory issues, diabetes, smoking, and peripheral artery disease can increase the rate of frostbite development.

What are the stages of frostbite?

The severity of frostbite can be classified using a frostbite chart. The stages of frostbite are as follows.

First-degree frostnip

First-degree frostnip is the mildest form. It occurs when the skin and underlying tissues become very cold but not frozen. The damage is limited to the skin’s surface at this stage and reversible with proper treatment.

Symptoms of first-degree frostnip may include:

  • A white or blue appearance of the skin
  • Numbness or tingling
  • A burning or itching sensation

At this stage, the affected skin may appear pale and feel cold. It may also feel numb or tingly. The treatment for frostnip typically involves rewarming the affected area using warm water.

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Second-degree superficial frostbite

Second-degree superficial frostbite, also known as partial thickness frostbite, is a more advanced stage of frostbite than frostnip but not as severe as deep frostbite. In this stage, the damage extends deeper into the skin, into the second layer of skin called the dermis.

Symptoms of second-degree superficial frostbite may include:

  • Blisters filled with clear, straw-colored fluid on the skin
  • Hardening and pale or waxy appearance of the skin
  • Swelling and redness
  • Loss of sensation or a burning or itching sensation in the affected area
  • Numbness or tingling

At this stage, the damage is still reversible, and healing can occur with proper medical treatment.

Third-degree deep frostbite

Third-degree deep frostbite, also known as full-thickness frostbite, is the most severe stage of frostbite. At this stage, the damage extends deep into the tissue, including the muscles, tendons, and bones. The affected area becomes black and hard, with a loss of sensation and muscle stiffness. If necessary, the tissue may be dead and require surgical intervention, including debridement (removing the dead tissue) and amputation.

Symptoms of third-degree deep frostbite may include:

  • Blackened, hardened, and cold skin
  • Loss of sensation in the affected area
  • Swelling
  • Blisters filled with black or yellow fluid
  • Numbness or tingling

Damage caused by third-degree deep frostbite is generally not reversible. It can result in permanent injury, disfigurement, and long-term functional impairments. In addition, there is a high risk of amputation.

Can you get frostbite from an ice pack?

It is possible to get frostbite from an ice pack, although it is unlikely under normal conditions.

An ice pack is typically used to reduce inflammation or to provide cold therapy to an injury. The pack is usually wrapped in a towel or protective covering to prevent direct contact between the skin and the ice. The pack is also not applied to the skin for extended periods in a way that would cause freezing of the skin and underlying tissues.

A person holding an ice pack to their arm at risk of getting frostbite from an ice pack

However, if an ice pack is applied directly to the skin without a protective covering or left on for an extended period, it could cause frostbite. Additionally, certain medical conditions can increase the susceptibility to frostbite, such as diabetes and Raynaud’s disease.

What is the best prevention for frostbite?

The best prevention for frostbite is to protect yourself from the cold and be aware of the signs of hypothermia and frostbite. Some ways to prevent frostbite include the following:

  • Dress warmly. Wear multiple layers of clothing to trap heat, including a moisture-wicking inner layer, insulation in the middle, and a waterproof and windproof outer layer. Cover exposed skin, including your head, face, and hands.
  • Keep an eye on the windchill factor. It can tell you how cold it actually is outside. It takes into account the air temperature and the wind speed. If it’s cold outside and there’s a breeze, you’ll feel even colder because of the windchill. Knowing that, you can dress accordingly and be more comfortable outdoors.
  • Stay dry. Wet clothing can increase the risk of hypothermia and frostbite, so it’s important to stay dry. If you get wet, change into dry clothing as soon as possible.
  • Limit time in the cold. The longer you spend in cold temperatures, the greater your risk of frostbite. If you must be outside in the cold, limit your time and take frequent warm-up breaks.
  • Keep moving. Your body generates heat by moving. Keep your blood flowing by moving your fingers, toes, and other extremities.
  • Take care of underlying medical issues. Certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, peripheral artery disease, and Raynaud’s disease, can increase your risk of frostbite. It’s important to manage these conditions and take medications as prescribed.
  • Seek medical attention if you suspect frostbite. Early treatment can help to reduce the risk of permanent tissue damage or amputation.

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What should I do if I get frostbite?

If you suspect you have frostbite, it’s essential to take immediate action to begin treatment and seek medical attention as soon as possible. Here are some steps you can take if you have frostbite:

  • Get indoors and out of the cold. The first step is to get out of the cold and into a warm place.
  • Rewarm the affected area. Gently rewarm the affected area using warm water, between 104 F and 108 F (40–42 C) until the skin becomes pink and warm. It’s important to be very careful when rewarming the area, as rewarming too quickly or with water that is too hot can cause tissue damage.
  • Keep the affected area elevated. Once rewarmed, keep the affected area elevated to reduce inflammation and swelling.
  • Monitor for signs of progression. After rewarming, monitor the affected area for signs of progression, such as blistering or blackening of the skin. If these signs appear, seek medical attention immediately.

Bottom line

Frostbite can be very dangerous and should not be taken lightly. Frostbite can also cause permanent damage if it isn’t treated properly. Therefore, seeing a health care professional as soon as possible after frostbite is crucial. The health care professional will assess the severity of the frostbite and may provide wound care, antibiotics, and in some cases, surgery. If the frostbite is severe, hospitalization may be necessary.

March 23, 2023