FORT LEE, Va. -- As winter weather approaches, many people look forward to snow and the many activities to be enjoyed in such weather. However, along with the cold temperatures comes an increased risk of cold weather injuries and death.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, exposure to excessive natural cold was the underlying cause in 2,622 deaths in 2005 – the last year in which such data was collected. Cold weather injuries occur when individuals are exposed to cold temperatures for an extended period of time and their body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced.
The most common injuries are hypothermia, frostbite, chilblain and immersion foot (also known as trench foot). Hypothermia is caused by severe body heat loss due to prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. Immersion in water can worsen the symptoms of hypothermia, creating a serious medical emergency as individuals stop shivering and display “umbles,” which consists of stumbles, mumbles, fumbles and grumbles. Immediate medical help is necessary in these situations.
Frostbite occurs when the body cannot maintain internal heat in certain areas. Usually, heat is lost in exposed areas where blood flow is decreased. The fingers, toes, ears and other isolated/uncovered body parts technically freeze and that can lead to gangrene and amputation if not properly treated. It is recommended that victims seek immediate medical attention if they suspect frostbite.
Chilblain is a condition caused by exposure of bare skin to continued temperatures of 20 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The cheeks, ears and fingers become tender, have a hot feeling, and the skin becomes red and itchy. Utilizing proper head and hand gear and scarves for exposed areas can prevent chilblains.
Immersion foot is caused by continued exposure to wet, cold conditions. Numb feet with shooting pains, redness, swelling and bleeding are symptoms associated with this injury. Keeping feet warm and dry is essential to preventing this cold weather injury.
The best defense against cold weather injuries is prevention. This year, reduce your chances of becoming a cold weather casualty by using C-O-L-D, an acronym that reminds you of the necessary steps to prevent such injuries.
C is for “Clean:” Wear socks and clothing that are clean because they are warmer.
O is for “Overheating:” Avoid overheating. It results in perspiration and the combination of being cold and wet increases your risk of cold weather related injuries.
L is for “Loose Layers:” Dressing in loose layers allows air spaces to hold body heat and individuals can easily remove clothing when necessary to prevent perspiration when temperatures change.
Loose layers further allows for comfort, better circulation, and insulation.
D is for “Dry:” Wet clothing is cold clothing. If your clothing becomes wet, change it for dry clothing. An extra pair of undershirts and socks is always a good idea.
Finally, individuals have a greater risk for cold weather injuries when they maintain a poor physical condition, receive inadequate rest, have an improper diet, suffer from pre-existing illnesses, consume alcohol, or are taking certain medications.
This year, take the initiative to decrease your risk by practicing prevention using C-O-L-D to have a safe winter.
If you have additional questions regarding cold weather injuries, contact KAHC’s Environmental Health office at (804) 734-9064.
Cpl. Tiffany Brown-Howard, Kenner Army Health Clinic Environmental Health