Avoid Cold Weather Injury
Winter is still with us and many areas not used to severe winter weather are getting hit and it is staying cold. If you don’t know the threat cold weather brings, you can’t work well in it or take care of common problems like you can in a more temperate climate. Throughout history even our troops have not been immune to cold weather.
The most important preventive measure is planning for the cold weather no matter where you live. Make sure you have accurate weather information before leaving home. Cold wind and rain can be worse than blowing snow since wet conditions and wind-chill greatly increase chance of injury. Then:
- Ensure that you have appropriate cold-weather clothing with you and stored in your home. The most important individual preventive measure is the proper wearing of cold-weather clothing and boots. Some think wearing every piece of cold-weather clothing they can get their hands on is the way to go. This can cause sweating and dehydration, and restrict circulation in the extremities which can increase the risk of frostbite.
- All cold-weather clothing should be worn loose and in layers. This allows for insulation by air trapped between the layers. Socks should be changed frequently and boots rotated if possible, you can take an extra pair of shoes to be worn inside while your boots dry out.
- Proper wearing of boots is important. Do not wear street or gym shoes in the snow, and cold-weather boots should not be worn indoors then out. Wet or damp boots need to be dried with warm air when possible. If boots are removed at night and moisture in them freezes, it can be like sticking your feet in ice cubes the next day, so bring them in to dry do not leave them on the stoop just to avoid the mess.
- It is important to protect the hands and fingers by wearing proper cold-weather/water-resistant gloves.
Typical cold-weather injuries include dehydration, chilblain, immersion foot or trench foot, frostbite, and hypothermia.
Dehydration is caused by a depletion of body fluids; symptoms include dizziness, weakness and blurred vision. First aid treatment is to replace lost water, which should be sipped, not gulped, and to seek medical treatment.
Chilblain is caused by repeated exposure of bare skin for a long period of time to temperatures from 20 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Some of the symptoms are skin that is swollen, red (or darkening of the skin in dark-skinned soldiers), tender or hot. Itching may accompany any or all of these symptoms. First-aid treatment is to warm the affected area with direct body heat. Do not massage or rub the affected area; do not wet the area or rub it with snow or ice; and do not expose the affected area to open fire, stove or any other intense heat source.
Immersion foot, which is commonly known as trench foot, is caused by prolonged exposure of feet to wet conditions at temperatures of 32 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, inactivity and damp socks and boots (or tightly laced boots that weaken circulation, which speeds onset and severity).
Symptoms of trench foot are cold, numb feet, which may progress to hot with shooting pains and swelling, redness and bleeding. If you suspect trench foot, get medical help immediately. Re-warm feet by exposing them to warm air, and evacuate the victim to a medical treatment facility. Do not massage, rub, moisten or expose the affected area to extreme heat.
Frostbite is caused by freezing of tissue, normally due to exposure to temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Body parts that are most often affected include fingers, toes, ears and facial parts. Symptoms of frostbite are numbness; tingling; blistering; swelling or tenderness; pale, yellowish, waxy-looking skin (grayish in dark-skinned soldiers); and frozen skin that feels wooden to the touch.
Frostbite is a medical emergency. Consult medical personnel immediately and evacuate the victim as soon as possible. If not treated properly, frostbite can lead to gangrene and amputation. If you suspect frostbite, you must start first aid immediately. Warm the affected area with direct body heat. Do not thaw the frozen areas if treatment will be delayed; do not massage or rub the affected areas; do not wet the area or rub it with snow or ice; and do not expose the affected area to open fire, stove or any other intense heat source.
Hypothermia is caused by prolonged cold exposure and body-heat loss. Hypothermia may occur at temperatures well above freezing, especially when a person is immersed in water. Symptoms include a lack of shivering, drowsiness, mental slowness and lack of coordination. This can progress to unconsciousness, irregular heartbeat and even death.
By knowing some of the other factors that can contribute to or prevent cold injury, you can further protect yourself.
- Previous cold injuries. People with previous cold injuries are more susceptible to another one. These soldiers must be identified, and first-line supervisors should monitor them closely.
- Tobacco. Nicotine—regardless if it comes from a cigarette, snuff, pipe, or cigar—causes blood vessels to constrict. Tobacco decreases circulation and increases your risk for injury, especially in the hands and feet.
- Alcohol and caffeine. These can lead to increased urination and subsequent dehydration.
- Skipped meals. If you skip meals, the first thing the body does is to slow the metabolism. Slower metabolism means less heat production and increased chance of cold injury.
- Inactivity. Huddling up and not moving is the wrong thing to do. The more you move the more heat you produce. Decreased activity decreases the time it takes to get an injury.
In addition to avoiding these contributing factors, you can prevent cold injury through these means:
- Watch your children. Children do not always know when it is time to come in. Keep an eye on them to help prevent injuries train yourself what to look for.
- Self-checks. A simple self-check is to pinch the fingernail and watch how fast the blood returns to your finger. The slower the return the higher the potential for a cold injury to the fingers or toes.
Prevention is the key, all cold-weather injuries are preventable, if you or a loved one are injured you can only blame that person looking back at you in the mirror.
Copyright © 2010 by Steven L. Doran
All rights reserved under international and Pan-American copyright conventions. No part of this article may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means without written permission from the author Steven L. Doran.