February 11, 2020

Frostbite Can Happen in Minutes

Preventing frostbite (and frostnip)

Thermometer showing below zero temperatures

When outside temperatures plummet to sub-zero and wind chills dip into negative numbers, you might be surprised how quickly frostbite can happen.


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Emergency room physician Stephen Meldon, MD, says frostbite can occur in as little as in 10 minutes when skin is exposed to temps that are -10 F.

“If people don’t realize how cold it is, frostbite can come faster than they expect,” Dr. Meldon says. “When the temperature is below zero, it is easy to miscalculate how long it is safe to be outside because frostbite can happen so quickly.”

This is why it’s important, Dr. Meldon says, to dress defensively in frigid weather. Now more than ever is the time to rummage through your coat closet and find those gloves, scarves and even potentially that ski mask.

Make sure to cover as much skin as possible and monitor your exposed skin for frostbite, says.


“The medical risk and danger really is exposure,” Dr. Meldon says. “So cover up.”

What’s the difference between frostbite and frostnip?

Frostnip is an early stage of frostbite and it’s actually the most common. Frostnip involves the surface of the skin, usually on the nose, ears, cheeks, fingers and toes. Symptoms are flushed or reddened skin that might be accompanied by a tingling or burning sensation.

Dr. Meldon recommends that you go indoors at the first sign of skin redness or pain to avoid developing full-blown frostbite.

Frostbite is more serious, but it can be reversed without lasting damage if it’s identified early, he says. With frostbite, your skin becomes firm, white and waxy while the tissue beneath remains soft and pliable.

How to treat frostnip — and when to seek emergency treatment for frostbite

Deep frostbite causes skin discoloration, blisters and flesh that feels extremely thick. Note: This level of frostbite can cause permanent damage. Go to the emergency room immediately.


Frostnip and early frostbite, on the other hand, can be treated at home by submerging the affected skin in warm — but not hot — water. That means a water temperature of about 100 F. (Try gauging it by dipping your elbow in it. The water should feel warm, not hot, to the touch). And importantly: Don’t rub or massage the frostbitten skin.

It might be painful as your skin warms, Dr. Meldon notes. If the pain is extreme, go to the emergency room for medical evaluation.

Related Articles

little boy taking a cookie break from snowboarding
December 11, 2020
15 Simple Winter Safety Tips for Kids

How to keep kids warm, healthy and safe

Female swimmer in the water at edge of a pool
December 1, 2023
Can Exercise Reduce Your Risk of Breast Cancer?

Physical activity and weight management can minimize your chances of getting the disease

Two people standing in the cold.
November 29, 2023
10 Colds Not To Catch This Winter

The flu, RSV, COVID-19, pneumonia and more typically circulate during cold weather months

Parent breastfeeding baby on bed, against the headboard.
November 27, 2023
Looking for Foods To Increase Your Milk Supply? Think Big Picture

No single food will increase your milk, but an overall healthy diet will help

Parent uses manual baby aspirator to open up nasal passages of baby.
November 22, 2023
Prevent Phlegm in Your Baby’s Throat With a Nasal Aspirator

Keeping your baby’s airways clear of mucus helps with breathing and feeding

Two different vaccines and needles displayed in foreground.
November 22, 2023
Which Vaccines Can You Get at the Same Time?

Getting routine vaccinations together can save you time and may be more effective

Muffins and sweetbreads with frosting on trays at bakery.
November 22, 2023
13 Foods That You Didn’t Know Contain Dairy

Be sure to check the labels of common foods like canned tuna, bread, hot dogs and chocolate

Toddler drinking from a cup while at the table during dinner.
November 21, 2023
Toddler Drinks — What Does the Research Say About These Products?

They aren’t unhealthy, but they’re probably a waste of money

Trending Topics

group of hands holding different beverages
November 14, 2023
10 Myths About Drinking Alcohol You Should Stop Repeating

Coffee won’t cure a hangover and you definitely shouldn’t mix your cocktail with an energy drink

Person applies moisturizer as part of their skin care routine after a shower.
November 10, 2023
Korean Skin Care Routines: What You Need To Know

Focus on the philosophy — replenishing and respecting your skin — not necessarily the steps

glass of cherry juice with cherries on table
November 8, 2023
Sleepy Girl Mocktail: What’s in It and Does It Really Make You Sleep Better?

This social media sleep hack with tart cherry juice and magnesium could be worth a try