Medical Corner: Cold stress and winter weather tips

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Erica Dawson
  • 71st Medical Operations Squadron
Have you ever wondered about the effects cold stress can have on your body? The hazardous effects of cold on the body may include dehydration, numbness, shivering, frostnip, frostbite, trench foot, and hypothermia. 

The toes, fingers, ears and nose are at greatest risk because these areas do not have major muscles to produce heat. 

The body will preserve heat by favoring the internal organs, which may cause frostnip, frostbite, or trench foot. 

Frostnip is the mildest form of a freezing-cold injury. It occurs when ear lobes, noses, cheeks, fingers, or toes are exposed to the cold and the top layers of the skin freeze.
The affected skin area turns white and it may feel numb. The top layer of skin feels hard but the deeper tissue still feels normal. 

Frostbite occurs when the skin freezes and actually loses water. Frostbite typically affects the extremities, practically in the feet and hands. Trench foot is the result of the skin having been exposed too long to cold and dampness, for days or weeks. 

The primary injury is to the nerve or muscle tissue. The affected areas can result in swelling, itching, loss of skin, skin ulcers, or blisters. The skin may be red initially and turn to blue or purple as the injury progresses. In severe cases, gangrene may develop. 

Hypothermia is the most serious effect of cold stress. The body loses the ability to maintain its normal temperature and the body temperature drops. The sensation of cold followed by pain in exposed parts of the body is one of the first signs of mild hypothermia. 

When the body temperature begins to drop, or as the exposure time increases; the feeling of pain and cold begin to diminish due to increased numbness. If no pain can be felt, serious injury can occur without the victims noticing it. 

Muscular weakness and drowsiness are the next symptoms. Victims can experience uncontrolled shivering, diminished consciousness and dilated pupils. 

Certain people are more susceptible than others to cold stress. These include: people who are not physically fit, have a chronic illness, drink alcohol, take drugs including prescription drugs or are fatigued. 

Ways to recognize symptoms of cold stress would be feeling pain in hands and feet, losing the sensation of touch, and the loss of skin elasticity. 

To prevent cold stress keep dry and wear loose fitting clothing. The effects of cold stress may not be apparent to its victims. In cold-stress prone environments, a buddy system should be used. Look out for one another and be alert for the symptoms of cold stress. 

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