January is here and the briskness of winter is in the air. I have learned to enjoy what winter brings, like cold weather camping. The most important component of cold weather camping is to be prepared. A friend of mine always says, “There is no such thing as inclement weather, only lack of preparation.”
Here are some health issues to keep in mind during the cold weather months:
Hypothermia is a drop in the body’s core temperature where there is an overall loss of body heat. The progressive symptoms are referred to as the “umbles,” which can be identified as stumble, fumble and grumble.
Stumble – loss of coordination
Fumble – loss of fine motor control. Think of touching your thumb to your pinky finger
Grumble – loss of cheerfulness, normal disposition and the ability to speak
The best treatment is to recognize these symptoms, remove the person from the cold, get rid of the wet clothes and rewarm the body’s core. Hypothermia is usually the first cold related health issue to appear.
Frostbite is tissue damage – usually appearing on the feet, hands, ears or face – due to exposure to cold temperatures at or below freezing. What will occur is the blood vessels will constrict, shunting blood from the extremities to the core. Often, frostbite starts with redness and pain. The exposed area will then become pale, then dark purple and sometimes black. Rewarming is the first step, based on the degree of damage – spontaneous amputation may also occur.
Immersion foot can occur in temperatures greater than freezing because this type of tissue damage is due to vascular constriction and moisture. Prolonged exposure of the feet to cool temperatures, humidity or dampness – such as sweaty socks – can cause immersion foot. The ulcerations that can occur with immersion foot are called chilblains. The progressive symptoms include a cold and edematous extremity followed by a waxy skin presentation. This can be accompanied by itching and pain that can lead to ulceration. The first steps for treatment are prevention, and warming the extremity followed by medical attention.
Sunburn is defined as dermal epithelial damage due to UV light exposure, and with increasing winds, windburn can occur. There is also an increased risk with the reflection of snow, sand and water. Initial symptoms include redness, pain, possible fever, chills, malaise, nausea or vomiting. In severe cases, sun poisoning and blistering are possible. One factor to note is that sunburns usually resolve with skin peeling.
Treatment is the same for sunburn and windburn; NSAIDs for pain or inflammation, hydration, emollients, possible IV fluids for hydration and treatment in a burn unit. The long term risk associated with sun and windburns is the increased incidence of skin cancers.
Snow blindness is a type of sunburn of the cornea. The UV radiation reflects off the snow, ice, clouds and water, affecting the cornea. The symptoms often begin with the feeling of grit in the eye. Light sensitivity and possibly temporary blindness are additional symptoms.
Prevention is critical; use goggles or sunglasses, and avoid further sun exposure with a temporary blindfold. In most cases, NSAIDs for pain are necessary, and sometimes optical anesthetics and antibiotics are necessary.
While we are all familiar with the issues of dehydration in warm or hot weather, we may not be aware that issues can occur in cold weather, too! The best treatment is to keep hydrated and drink warm fluids.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Carbon monoxide poisoning is the replacement of oxygen with carbon monoxide that can impair the delivery of oxygen to the tissues. Improper ventilation of stoves or fire is a common cause of accidental CO poisoning. The progressive symptoms include fatigue and headache with characteristic “cherry red lips.” Late symptoms include lack of coordination, seizures, coma and death. The best treatment is prevention, but if CO poisoning does occur, move away from the source. Hospitalization might be required for IV fluids as well as hyperbaric oxygen therapy.
Stay safe and healthy this winter, and remember that prevention is really the best treatment plan for any of the cold weather related health conditions.