How to Prevent Frostbite

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on May 31, 2021

It’s more than chills and chattering teeth. Frostbite can lead to severe, permanent injury to body parts exposed to bitter cold. The good news is you can avoid it by dressing warmly, drinking lots of water, and knowing when to stay in.

What Is Frostbite?

It happens when the skin -- and sometimes the tissues -- of your ears, nose, fingers, or toes freeze in extremely cold temperatures. It can be sneaky. The affected places go numb, but it’s what you don’t feel that can do serious damage. In severe cases, frostbite can require amputation, which is removal of the body part.

To avoid frostbite, you’ll need to rely on all your senses. Stay alert for:

  • Exposed skin that starts to look red. It might throb, prickle, burn, or sting. These are usually the first signs.
  • Areas that look yellowish-gray or white, waxy, or feel too firm
  • Lack of feeling in a part of your body that’s exposed to cold

Dress for Excess

The only sure way to prevent frostbite is to limit the amount of time you spend outdoors in extremely cold weather. But if you plan to spend time outside, dressing right is a must. Here are some tips:

Layer up. You’re not after the snowman look. Play it loose, light, and comfy. Flowy layers keep warm air in, close to your body.

Wear a synthetic fabric next to your skin. Undergarments that pull moisture from your body are best. Cover those with a fleece and wool layer. It’ll help retain body heat.

Top off your layers with outerwear that wards off wind and water. Down jackets and ski pants are good choices.

Tuck in your toes. You’ll need to wear not one – but two – pairs of socks. Like your clothing, the pair underneath should wick moisture from your skin. Next, pull on a pair made of wool or wool-blend. Foot warmers can work well, too. Just make sure they’re not too bulky beneath your boots; tightness hampers blood flow.

Make sure your footwear is waterproof and covers your ankles. You don’t want snow and dampness to seep in.

You have a greater chance of getting frostbite if your clothes and footwear get wet. Make sure your layers stay dry.

Don’t forget your fingers. Mittens are your best bet to protect your digits from frostbite. If you prefer gloves, choose a cozy pair and try moisture-wicking glove liners under them.

Heading out. A hat or headband made of fleece, heavy wool, or windproofing fabric is your best choice. Make sure it covers your ears. Add a face mask or scarf if the cold is extreme. It’ll protect your face and nose. It’ll warm the air you breathe in, too.

H2O to go. Drink lots of water. Down at least a whole glass and eat a good meal before you venture out. Avoid alcohol. It makes you lose heat more quickly. Want a sweet treat to bump up your body heat? A mug of hot cocoa might hit the spot.

Mind the Clime

Trust your weather forecast, and note those wind-chill readings. If it’s super cold and windy, frostbite can attack exposed skin within minutes. Take along emergency supplies in case you can’t get back as quickly as you plan. Include extra clothing for warmth.

Check in With Friends

It’s best to be prepared, whether or not you think you’ll need help. Before you venture out, let people know where you’re headed and when you’ll be back. If you’ll be somewhere remote, tell them which route you’re taking.

Keep It Moving

Staying in motion while you’re out keeps your blood flow up and helps you stay warm. Be sure you don’t overdo it, though. You’ll need your energy in the cold.

WebMD Medical Reference



American Academy of Dermatology: “Frostbite: Prevention and Treatment.”

CDC: “Avoid, Spot, Treat Frostbite and Hypothermia,” “Frostbite.”

Mayo Clinic: “Frostbite Prevention.”

© 2021 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.
Click to view privacy policy and trust info