Arnold AFB Safety provides tips in avoiding cold weather hazards

  • Published
  • By Richard Fleming
  • AEDC Safety

With the extreme cold we have already experienced this season, and winter in full swing, I was reminded how unprepared for cold weather many of us are and how quickly you can get into trouble in cold weather. It only takes a few minutes for hypothermia or frostbite to cause serious injury.

What is Hypothermia?

According to the Mayo Clinic, hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. Normal body temperature is around 98.6 F degrees. Hypothermia is when your body temperature falls below 95 F. When your core temperature gets that low, your heart, nervous system and other organs can't work normally. If action is not taken, hypothermia can lead to death.

What are the symptoms?

Shivering is likely the first thing you'll notice. You may also observe:

  • Slurred speech or mumbling
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Clumsiness or lack of coordination
  • Drowsiness or very low energy
  • Confusion or memory loss
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Bright red, cold skin (in infants)

Because mental confusion clouds perception and the symptoms often begin gradually, someone experiencing hypothermia is often not aware of it. That mental confusion can also lead to risk-taking behavior.

What should you do?

Get out of the cold and into a warm environment as soon as possible. Take off any wet clothing and replace with dry clothes and wrap up in a blanket.

When should you see a doctor?

Call 911 if you even suspect someone has hypothermia. While you wait for emergency help to arrive, gently move the person inside if possible and start the warming process. Jarring movements can trigger dangerous irregular heartbeats.

How does your body lose heat?

You can lose body heat through several different factors that include:

  • Radiated heat. Most heat loss is due to heat radiated from unprotected surfaces of your body.
  • Direct contact. If you're in direct contact with something very cold, such as cold water or the cold ground, heat is conducted away from your body.
  • Wind. Wind removes body heat by carrying away the thin layer of warm air at the surface of your skin. A wind chill factor is important in causing heat loss.

Risk factors for hypothermia include:

  • Wet damp conditions
  • Exhaustion
  • Older age
  • Mental problems
  • Alcohol and drug use
  • Certain medical conditions
  • Medications
  • Very young age: children lose heat faster than adults

It’s also important to note that water doesn't have to be extremely cold to cause hypothermia. Any water that's colder than normal body temperature causes heat loss.

What is Frostbite?

The Mayo Clinic defines frostbite as an injury caused by freezing of the skin and underlying tissues. An early stage of frostbite is known as frostnip. With frostnip, there is no permanent damage to skin. Symptoms include cold skin and a prickling feeling, followed by numbness, and inflamed or discolored skin. As frostbite worsens, skin may become hard or waxy looking. Frostbite is most common on the fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin. Because your skin becomes numb, you may not realize you have frostbite until someone points it out. Even skin covered with gloves or other clothing can get frostbite.

What are the symptoms?

  • At first, cold skin and a prickling feeling
  • Numbness
  • Skin that looks red, white, bluish-white, grayish-yellow, purplish, brown, or ashen, depending on the severity of the condition and usual skin color
  • Hard or waxy looking skin
  • Clumsiness due to joint and muscle stiffness
  • In severe cases, blistering after rewarming may occur.

The Mayo website explains that Frostbite occurs in stages:

  • Frostnip. Frostnip is a mild form of frostbite. As your skin warms, you may feel pain and tingling. Frostnip doesn't cause permanent skin damage.
  • Superficial frostbite. Superficial frostbite causes slight changes in skin color. The skin may begin to feel warm — a sign of serious skin involvement. If you treat frostbite with rewarming at this stage, the surface of the skin may appear mottled and you may notice stinging, burning and swelling. A fluid-filled blister may appear 12 to 36 hours after rewarming the skin.
  • Deep (severe) frostbite. As frostbite progresses, it affects all layers of the skin as well as the tissues that lie below. The skin turns white or blue-gray and you lose all sensation of cold, pain or discomfort in the area. Joints or muscles may stop working. Large blisters from 24 to 48 hours after rewarming. The tissue turns black and hard as it dies.

When to see a doctor?

Seek medical attention if you suspect frostbite.

What should you do?

You can treat frostnip by rewarming, but all other frostbite requires medical attention to minimize permanently damaging skin, muscle, bone and other tissue.

While you wait for emergency medical help or a doctor's appointment, take appropriate self-care measures, such as: removing wet clothing, protecting the affected area from further cold exposure, not walking on frostbitten feet, or reducing pain with a pain reliever.

Risk factors

  • Medical conditions such as dehydration, excessive sweating, exhaustion, diabetes and poor blood flow in the limbs
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Smoking
  • Fear, panic or mental illness that impairs your judgment.
  • Previous frostbite or cold injury
  • Being an infant or older adult, both of whom may have a harder time producing and retaining body heat.
  • Being at high altitude, where there's less oxygen.

Frostbite is preventable.

Start by limiting the time outdoors in cold, wet or windy weather. If you must be outdoors, dress in layers, wear something that covers the ears, and mittens rather than gloves. Wear socks that wick moisture and provide insulation (wool socks are good for this). Eat well-balanced meals and stay hydrated. Don't drink alcohol if you plan to be in cold weather. Keep moving to keep your blood flowing. Watch for signs of frostbite.

When the weather is cold or could turn colder, take the time to be prepared. Have an extra coat, blanket and an “in case of emergency” kit in the car.  If you are working or playing outdoors keep an eye on each other looking for any signs of trouble.

Take care of each other.