Monday Medical: Prevent cold injury
December 15, 2013
The frigid air that kicked off winter in Northwest Colorado has been a reminder of the risk of cold injury, especially frostbite. While subzero temperatures present obvious threats, cold winds and wet conditions quickly can compromise the body's ability to warm itself, even when temperatures are well above zero degrees, said Dr. Nate Anderson, an emergency medicine physician at Yampa Valley Medical Center.
"When exposed to cold and wet conditions, it can be a matter of minutes for frostbite to set in," he said.
Preparing for changing conditions and the potential of being outdoors longer than planned are the first steps in preventing cold injuries. Being ready to react to signs of frostbite and hypothermia in ourselves and those we are with — especially children, older adults and individuals with medical conditions — will go a long way in helping us avoid complications that can occur from severe cold injuries.
Frostbite is the freezing of tissue in places on our bodies exposed to cold. This usually happens at "end of the line" circulation sites such as ears, nose, fingers and toes. Early stages of frostbite may cause numbness, burning, tingling or itching sensations.
As frostbite begins to take hold, the skin looks pale and whitish, feels icy and waxy and is difficult to move.
At this point, it's important to seek warmth and shelter as soon as possible. A frostbitten area should be rewarmed slowly. Hands and feet are best warmed in a bath of lukewarm water. Warm packs or warm skin can be placed on other body areas.
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Rubbing affected skin can worsen the injury. It's also important never to allow a part that has been rewarmed to refreeze, which can compound the injury. Frostbitten areas should be evaluated by a medical professional for the best outcome, Anderson said.
Hypothermia, a dangerous drop in body temperature, is another risk of cold weather exposure. Shivering is the body's way of keeping warm as its core temperature begins to drop. When a person stops shivering, their body temperature is critically low, and problems with mental functioning and other body system will begin to occur. Medical attention should be sought immediately.
"Once someone starts shivering, they need to come in out of the cold environment," Anderson said. "It is an easily recognizable sign to take action."
Wearing appropriate clothing, including layers of moisture-wicking fabrics (no cotton), and bringing extra clothes such as a neck gaiter or balaclava, glove liners, extra socks and a light down jacket is the first line of defense against the cold.
Plans for a backcountry excursion should address the possibility of blizzard conditions, injury or other situations that may result in an extended or overnight trip.
"Be prepared for the unexpected," said Kristia Check-Hill, incident commander with Routt County Search and Rescue. She recommends bringing the following survival supplies:
■ Extra food and water
■ Cellphone with full battery (turned off and kept close to the body to keep warm)
■ All-weather space blanket
■ Air-activated hand warmers
■ Fire starters (matches, lighters, cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly)
■ Small saw for cutting branches
■ Small shovel for building a snow shelter
■ Metal camp cup to melt snow
■ Headlamp or flashlight with extra batteries
■ First aid kit
This article includes information from "Reduce Your Risk of Frostbite," a Monday Medical column by Dr. Nate Anderson published Feb. 4.
Tamera Manzanares writes for Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.