Cold-Related Injuries: What You Need To Know

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Beth Holliker
  • Public Affairs
As temperatures plummet during the winter months, the chances for cold-related injuries increase. These cold-related injuries can be serious and at times, even fatal.

In 2009, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported 33 cold-related fatalities, 27 of those were in outdoor areas, two of those from the state of Ohio.

If your job keeps you outdoors for the majority of the workday, you especially need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of these injuries and know how to help prevent them from the start.

Frostbite and hypothermia are the injuries that we hear about the most throughout the winter months, but did you know that trench foot and sunburns are just as common?

If you notice a tingling and/or itching sensation, burning, pain or even blisters during or after long, continuous exposure to cold, wet environments or even having feet immersed in water for long periods of time you may be developing trench foot.

Should you suspect that you may have trench foot, move to a warm dry location and warm your feet slowly while slightly elevated and seek medical treatment as soon as possible.

Though sunburns are typically associated with sunny summer days, you can still get sunburned in the winter. Indirect sunlight reflected off of the snow can increase your chances of sunburn.

"Sunburns can still happen in the winter," said Mr. John Castellani, a researcher at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. "You can still get sunburned when the UV index is low.

Sunburns do not only affect your skin, but also your eyes. Snow blindness is caused when your eyes become sunburned.

Snow blindness and sunburns can be prevented by taking simple steps such as wearing and reapplying sunscreen often and by wearing sunglasses or goggles while outside.

Frostbite, one of the most common winter injuries, occurs when skin tissues actually freeze. When your skin freezes, tiny ice crystals form between skin cells pulling water from the cells causing them to become dehydrated. Though frostbite usually occurs when temperatures fall below freezing, it can also occur when temperatures are above freezing if wind chills are extreme.

Symptoms of frostbite can include uncomfortable sensations of coldness, stinging and tingling or aching of affected areas followed by numbness. Affected areas, typically of the ears, nose, fingers and toes will appear white and cold to the touch, though appearances may vary if they have been rewarmed.

Frostbitten areas that become numb, painless and hard to the touch are signs of deep frostbite, affecting muscles and tendons.

Frostbite, no matter how minor, should not be ignored. If you think you may have even a little bit of frostbite, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends that you seek medical attention immediately. Severe frostbite can result in hospitalization and sometimes amputation of affected areas.

Until frostbitten areas can be evaluated by medical professionals, keep the areas covered by soft clean cloth bandages or sterile gauze. Massaging frostbitten tissues can cause further damage to the affected areas.

Hypothermia, another common cold-related injury is caused when the body temperature falls to a level where functions of the brain become impaired, around 95 degrees. The first signs of hypothermia include mild confusion, shivering and the inability to perform come motor functions.

As the body temperature continues to fall, causing a more severe case, a person will fall into a state of dazed consciousness, demonstrate irrational behavior, slur speech and be able to perform even fewer motor functions.

When body temperatures fall below 90 degrees, the body goes into a state of hibernation where the heart rate, blood flow and breathing slow, sometimes causing unconsciousness and heart failure if untreated.

Treat a hypothermic person by conserving their remaining body heat and providing additional heat until medical treatment can be given.

Are you at higher risk for cold-related injuries? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration lists several major risk factors that can put you at higher risk.

- Wearing inadequate or wet clothing
- Taking certain drugs or medications such as alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and medication that inhibits the body's response to cold or impairs judgment
- Having a cold or certain diseases, such as diabetes, heart, vascular, and thyroid problems
- Males are at an increased risk and suffer a far greater fatality rate than women due to body fat composition, physiological differences and inherent risk-taking activities - 26 of the 33 fatalities in 2009 were men
- Becoming exhausted or immobilized, especially due to injury or entrapment may speed up the effects of cold weather
- Aging - the elderly are more vulnerable to the effects of the harsh winter weather

Just because you may not be at a higher risk or don't work outside doesn't mean that you are immune to these injuries. Often times, those who spend little time outside are the least prepared for the elements when venturing outside. Everyone, no matter how much time you spend outdoors or what your job entails should be knowledgeable and prepared for all winter weather conditions.

These injuries not only impact you while at work, but also your families, children, friends and neighbors at home, but can easily be prevented by taking a few precautions before spending time outside.

Take a few minutes to review the preparation and prevention tips below to help ensure that you, your loved ones, friends and coworkers stay warm and safe this winter season

Dress warmly and in layers - Outer layer to break the wind and allow ventilation, a middle layer of wool or synthetic fabric to absorb sweat and retain insulation, and an inner layer of cotton or synthetic weave to allow ventilation

Protect hands, feet, face and head - up to 40 percent of body heat can be lost when your head is exposed.

Avoid overexertion and exhaustion

Cover the mouth to protect the lungs

Stretch before shoveling snow or other physical activity to prevent other injuries

Apply and reapply sunscreen often

Watch for signs of frostbite and hypothermia

Have extra dry clothing (boots, socks, etc.) available during wet weather

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