What is frostbite?

Frostbite can happen in minutes and can affect any area of exposed skin

It's getting colder and winter will be here soon, so if you're headed outside when the temperatures drop, you need to be aware of signs of frostbite and what to do if you're affected.

According to the National Weather Service, frostbite occurs when the body's survival mechanisms kick in during extremely cold conditions. So, to protect vital organs, the body cuts blood circulation to extremities that will eventually freeze.

It's easy to avoid frostbite – stay inside where it's warm. But if you do have to venture outside during extreme cold, try and cover every part of your body and keep your skin dry. 

Frostbite can happen in minutes and can affect any exposed skin area, especially on your fingers, toes, nose and ears.

Signs of frostbite can include the formation of ice crystals on your skin, as well as redness and/or pain in an area of exposed skin. Numbness and skin that feels firm or waxy can also be a sign of frostbite.

What to do if you're affected by frostbite

If you head outside when it's extremely cold, you could be at risk for frostbite. But there are things you can do before you get inside and after to try and prevent significant damage.

Try and get inside as quickly as possible. Until then, don't rub or massage any area that you feel is frostbitten. You can also put your hands in your armpits to try and warm them up. Holding onto another person or an animal could help warm you up, too. Adding extra layers of clothes and blankets, if possible, will help.

Once you get inside, make sure you don't walk on your foot if it's frostbitten. That could cause more damage. You can get into a warm, not hot, bath and wrap your face and ears in a moist, warm towel.

Never stand near a hot stove or heater or use a heating pad, hot water bottle, or hair dryer to try and warm up. You could burn yourself before the feeling returns.

And if your skin turns blue or gray, gets swollen, blistered, or feels hard and numb, get to a hospital as soon as possible.