Fort McCoy News Jan. 27, 2017

Knowledge key to preventing cold-weather injuries

Each year, hundreds of Soldiers experience cold-weather-related injuries. The responsibility for preventing these injuries is a command and leadership function, as well as a personal responsibility for each Soldier.

Exposure to the cold can lead to a variety of problems for Soldiers and leaders. However, while the cold makes military tasks more difficult, it does not make them impossible. The key to overcoming the cold and successfully completing the mission lies within understanding cold-weather injuries and how to prevent them.

According to the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, the most common cold-weather injuries (and how to prevent them) are:

Chilblains are a nonfreezing cold injury resulting from repeated, prolonged skin exposure to cold and wet (high humidity) temperatures above freezing. Exposed skin becomes red, tender, and hot to the touch and is usually itchy. These symptoms can worsen to an aching, prickly (pins and needles) sensation and then numbness. Chilblains can develop on exposed skin in only a few hours. The most commonly affected areas are the ears, nose, fingers, and toes.

Cold-weather injuries graphic

Immersion foot/trench foot is a nonfreezing injury that results from prolonged exposure to wet conditions between 32-60 F or inactivity with damp socks and boots. Immersing feet in cold water, not changing socks frequently, not maintaining proper hygiene, and allowing sweat to accumulate inside boots or gloves will soften the skin, causing tissue loss and often infection. Symptoms in affected areas include cold, swollen, discolored, and waxy flesh accompanied by tingling sensations, numbness, and pain. In extreme cases, the flesh dies and amputation may be necessary.

Frostnip is the freezing of the top layers of skin tissue and is considered the first degree of frostbite. Frostnip usually results from short-duration exposure to cold air or contact with a cold object such as metal. Exposed skin such as the cheeks, ears, fingers, and wrists are more likely to develop frostnip. The top layer of frozen skin becomes white and waxy and feels hard and rubbery while the deeper tissue is still soft. Affected areas feel numb and may become swollen but do not blister. Frozen skin thaws quickly, becoming red and painful with eventual peeling. Complete healing usually occurs within 10 days, and frostnip is normally reversible.

Frostbite is the actual freezing of skin tissue. It can extend through all layers of the skin and freeze muscle and bone. Frozen skin may turn red and then gray-blue with blisters. In the worst cases, the skin dies and turns blue-black. At this stage, amputation is often required. Deep-frozen skin feels wooden to the touch with zero mobility of the affected body part. Instantaneous frostbite can occur when skin comes in contact with super-cooled liquids, including petroleum, oils and lubricants, fuel, antifreeze, and alcohol — all of which remain liquid at temperatures as low as minus 40 F.

Hypothermia is a potentially life-threatening condition. It is defined as a general cooling of the body's core temperature below 95 F (normal body temperature is 98.6 F). Hypothermia sets in when body heat loss exceeds the body's heat production due to prolonged cold exposure. Although hypothermia is usually associated with cold climates, it can occur at temperatures well above freezing, especially when a person is exposed to wet conditions over an extended period of time.

Signs and symptoms of hypothermia change as body temperature falls. Mental functions typically decline first, marked with impaired decision-making ability, slurred speech, disorientation, incoherence, irrationality, and possible unconsciousness. Muscle functions deteriorate with shivering and loss of fine motor ability (i.e., unable to complete tasks with hands), progressing to stumbling, clumsiness, and falling. In severe cases, shivering ceases and the victim exhibits stiffness and an inability to move. Pulse and respiration rates can decrease, progressing to unconsciousness, irregular heartbeat, and death.

Unfortunately, early signs and symptoms of hypothermia can be difficult to recognize and may go undetected. Victims may deny they are in trouble, so believe the symptoms, not the victim.

Dehydration is a lack of water in the body. Most people associate dehydration with hot weather, but it is very easy to become dehydrated in cold weather. Soldiers can fall victim to dehydration when they fail to drink enough liquid and underestimate fluid loss from sweating. Proper hydration is especially important in cold weather because dehydration adversely affects the body's resistance to cold injury, increasing the chance of cold-weather injuries. Remember that proper hydration is essential to supplying the fuel and energy necessary for heat production.

Understanding the factors contributing to cold-weather injuries provides a better understanding of the best methods to combat the cold. Environmental factors that can contribute to cold weather injuries include temperature, wind, rain, immersion and altitude; workload; duration of cold/wet exposure; and individual risk factors such as physical fitness, fatigue, health, prior history of cold injury, use of medications, alcohol, nicotine, and poor nutrition.

Cold-weather injuries are preventable, so Soldiers of all ages must be prepared to kill the chill. Remember, battling the cold is like battling any other enemy — mission success happens only through proper planning and training. Don't get left out in the cold this winter.

Anyone can become a cold-weather casualty. However, according to the U.S. Army Public Health Center, the typical victim is male, about 20 years old, from a warm climate, and an E4 or below; has less than 18 months in service; uses tobacco, alcohol, and/or medications; and neglects proper foot care.

More information on cold-weather safety is available on the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center's website at https://safety.army.mil. For more information about safety at Fort McCoy, call 608-388-3403.

   (Article prepared by the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center.)