Treating Frostbite for Survival

Serious injuries, like frostbite, can be hard to avoid in extreme survival situations like blizzards or getting trapped in a freezer. (Hey, it happens.)

Frostbite, dismissed as a minor irritant when close to home, might in the wild, far from modern medical treatment, quickly become life-threatening. It isn’t always obvious; people suffering from mild cases may not even know they have it. Until their fingers or toes fall off, that is.

What is Frostbite?

Frostbite behaves essentially like a burn and is a serious injury to the skin and/or deeper tissues. It can occur within minutes when the temperature goes lower than 10 degrees Fahrenheit. However, prolonged exposure at temperatures at or below freezing can cause serious tissue damage. This is especially true if other elements such as water, snow and wind are directly contacting the skin.

Extreme cases sometimes become irreversible because prolonged exposure can actually freeze the spaces between cells of the skin, muscles and blood, killing the cells in the process. If this occurs, the affected body part will be as good as dead, especially if no medical treatment is given within 24 hours. So we definitely recommend it.

If the frostbite is small and superficial, commonly called frost nip, attempt to warm up the affected area by placing it against your, or someone else's, core. (Make sure you ask permission first because it’s really annoying when a spouse does this sort of thing thinking it’s funny – so we’ve heard – or potentially illegal, if the warm core belongs to an unassuming passerby.)

STRANGE SURVIVAL TIP: For mild frost nip, apply a topical paste made with cayenne pepper and aloe vera. Cayenne has been used to treat frostbite in China and Japan for centuries. Plus, it’s yummy.

For serious cases, attempt to submerge the affected area in a warm (98-102 degrees F) bath. Do NOT overheat the affected area. And, for our most obvious statement of the day, avoid further exposure to cold.

Also, frostbitten skin should NEVER be rubbed or massaged, as irreversible damage to the skin and tissue cells could occur.

Potential Complications

Gangrene is a serious problem for victims of severe frostbite. If left unchecked, it can really ruin a pedicure.

So what is it? Essentially, gangrene is a dangerous medical condition, often accompanied by infection, caused by a lack of blood supply to tissue. There are different types (wet, dry, internal, gas) but all are life-threatening if left untreated.

Though some less-severe types of gangrene can be treated with antibiotics or even maggot therapy (Medically-approved maggots are placed in the wound and eat the dead tissue. Really.), often the dead tissue must be removed via surgery to prevent blood poisoning.

All kidding aside, a particularly nasty gangrenous infection can kill within 24-48 hours. If you notice blueish-black, discolored skin, blisters filled with pus (often accompanied by a strong smell), a cracking sound when pressure is applied to the affected tissue or red infectious streaks radiating from the injury, take immediate action.

Click here for more on gangrene.


Of course, preventing frostbite is your first and best defense. Dress in layers and always bring more clothes than you think you’ll need. Pretend like you’re packing for vacation. About 90 percent of what you bring will remain unused, but when your extremities become nippy, you’ll be glad you packed those long johns.

The areas of the body most prone to frostbite are the face, ears, hands and feet. (And knee caps. Have you ever noticed how cold they get even with snow pants on?) As the body gets cold, it pulls blood from the extremities to the core to keep vital organs running. Why our bodies make it more difficult to use our hands to start a fire, or to use our legs to run to get help, in order to keep the pancreas nice and toasty is beyond me.

To stay one step ahead of your body’s misguided energy conservation procedures, always have a quality set of gloves (good) or mittens (best), waterproof boots, a face mask, a scarf and a warm hat.

WARNING! ACTUAL FACTUAL STATISTIC APPROACHING: We lose roughly 30 percent of our body heat through our head. By keeping your head (and neck) covered and warm, it will keep the rest of your body warm. It helps fool those greedy internal organs.

Boots should not be worn too tight. Thick socks may look warm and snugly, but if they don’t allow your toes to move around inside your boots, circulation will decrease and they (your toes) will freeze. It also doesn’t hurt to have a back-up pair of gloves or mittens in case your first pair gets wet. Remember that moisture wicks body heat away startlingly fast, so wear fabrics that don’t lose their insulating ability when wet, like wool or expanded polystyrene.

Lastly, use some common sense and pay attention to your body. If you’re cold, stop and warm up. If you’re hungry (your body needs fat and carbohydrates for its heat), stop and eat. It’s only when we ignore our body’s initial warning signs that serious health problems, like death, occur.

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