Beat the cold-- Nip the frost

  • Published
  • By Senior Airmen Omar Robinson and Stephen McCallister
  • Aerospace Physiology, 71st Medical Operations Group
As you know, the cold winter season is upon us. The risks of two dangerous conditions increase with colder temperatures: hypothermia and frostbite. To prevent these conditions from occurring while exposed to cold temperatures, it is imperative that you stay alert and become familiar with the warning signs and symptoms of both hypothermia and frostbite.

A standard definition of hypothermia is an abnormally low body temperature. We require treatment at body temperatures at or below 95 degrees Fahrenheit and hypothermia becomes life threatening when body temperatures fall below 90 degrees Fahrenheit. When treating for hypothermia, slow heating of the body is imperative; the body's core temperature should not rise by more than a couple of degrees per hour.

A standard definition of frostbite is damage to the skin caused by freezing. Frostbite is caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, usually below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. It can occur when ice crystals form in the skin or deep tissue. Frostbite commonly affects the hands and feet, which account for 90 percent of cases, as well as the nose and the ears. Although children, older people and people with circulatory problems are at greater risk for frostbite, most cases occur in adults between the ages of 30 and 49. The severity of frostbite depends on temperature, length of exposure, wind-chill factor, dampness and the type of clothing worn.

So what does frostbite look like? Frostbite will usually cause skin to appear waxy, white or have a grayish tint. The affected area will become numb.

There are three degrees of frostbite: frostnip, superficial frostbite and deep frostbite. Frostnip is less severe and affects the tips of the cheeks, the ears, the nose, the fingers and the toes. Frostnip is associated with a prickly sensation throughout the affected area and causes the skin to become red and have the feeling of numbness or tingling.

Superficial frostbite occurs when the skin becomes frozen but the deeper tissues remain soft. Finally, deep frostbite causes the skin to form blisters, harden, whiten or becoming numb. The skin may also become blackened, which means that the tissue has died and gangrene has set in.

If any form of frostbite occurs, seek medical attention immediately. While waiting for help, wait in a warm room and stay hydrated with warm drinks, such as broth or tea. Take off any wet or restrictive clothing and apply gauze dressings to the frostbitten area, wrapping each finger and toe separately. Stay warm by layering clothing or using blankets.

Avoid walking on frostbitten feet and elevate them slightly. Check yourself every half-hour for signs of frostbite. When re-warming the affected area, don't use dry heat, such as heat from a heating pad, sunlamp, fire, or radiator, because the numbness of the skin can prevent you from knowing that you are burning.

Dressing insufficiently, wearing restrictive clothing, staying out in the cold for long periods of time and getting wet in cold temperatures drastically increase your risk of developing both hypothermia and frostbite. It's vital to protect your head, hands and feet because these are the areas that lose body heat the fastest.

We hope this basic knowledge will help prevent these two cold threats from affecting you while at Vance Air Force Base. Stay warm this winter.