By Military Health System Communications Office
When it comes to weathering cold temperatures, preparation is key. The biggest risk factors and those most commonly associated with winter weather exposure are hypothermia and frostbite. Both are significant risks for both service personnel on the job and civilians enjoying winter sports at this time of year.
Frostbite occurs when a part of the body — usually an extremity such as fingers and toes — freezes. In the most severe cases, frostbitten tissue may require amputation. The incidence of frostbite is four times that of hypothermia, according to Maj. David DeGroot, deputy chief of the Department of Clinical Investigation at Tripler Army Medical Center.
Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature drops due to excessive heat loss, inadequate heat production, or a combination of both. This can happen due to sweating in cold air, accidental water immersion, or simply being exposed to extreme cold for a prolonged time period. Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, confusion, memory loss, slurred speech, and exhaustion. Symptoms of frostnip, the first stage of frostbite, include skin redness, pain, or a tingling sensation. Frostbite sets in with numbness, joint and muscle fatigue, and a hardening of the skin, usually starting with the toes and fingers or other extremities.
Service members stationed in cold climates are prone to other winter weather afflictions, as well, according to DeGroot. Trench foot, a common ailment of British soldiers during the Falkland Islands War, is caused by prolonged exposure to cold and damp conditions, which can lead to severe tissue damage. Carbon monoxide poisoning is a risk for anyone using space heaters in field tents without proper ventilation. For service members and outdoor enthusiasts alike, snow blindness and sunburn are conditions that can result from the bright sun reflecting off snow. Proper eye protection and sunscreen are a must when engaging in any outdoor winter activities, especially on sunny days.
A DHA review of cold weather injuries ranked frostbite as the most common. Certain demographic groups were at greater risk of such injuries, including females and younger Army recruits. DeGroot noted that these statistics help leaders ensure their field soldiers are well-trained and properly clothed to withstand the many risks associated with weather exposure.
“The best precaution is dressing properly and keeping the body warm and dry,” DeGroot said. “Thanks to remarkable progress made in developing protective cold weather clothing and gear, there are very few places on this planet that people can’t survive.”
For service members and outdoor adventurers alike, he advises wearing several layers of loose clothing that can be removed easily if needed. “It’s also important to layer clothing correctly, choosing pieces made of wicking fabric to wear closest to your skin that won’t absorb moisture,” he said. For example, cotton should not be used at the bottom layer because it will trap moisture; the cooling effect could lead to hypothermia.
Prolonged exposure to cold temperatures is a greater risk factor for those who spend long periods of time outdoors — not just for the military but hunters and hikers, as well. DeGroot cautioned against use of alcohol or tobacco products when venturing outdoors in winter because they affect blood flow to the skin and can increase risks of hypothermia or frostbite. Alcohol consumption can also impair judgement regarding how much exposure to cold the body can withstand.
Dehydration is another, often overlooked, cold weather risk factor, DeGroot stated, particularly for military members on patrol who drink less. The result can be dizziness, confusion, or drowziness.
“For the military, outdoor training or activities are never canceled solely due to cold weather because they insure military members are properly outfitted with the clothing and gear they will need,” said DeGroot, who stressed the critical need for immediate medical attention when the warning signs of hypothermia or frostbite are observed.