Winter Alert – Cold Weather Injuries

As humans, we generally think of ourselves as being resilient, but when it comes to temperature, we are quite fragile. As tropical animals, we can only survive in environments that range between about 40 and 95 °F without the help of adaptations like clothing or shelter.

In fact, a person will die when their internal body temperature drops from 98.6 to 70 °F which can happen in mere minutes depending on the conditions. With the beginning of winter right around the corner, we wanted to identify some of the most common cold weather related injuries and safety tips to keep you safe during the coming winter months.


From 1999-2011, there were almost 17,000 hypothermia related deaths in the United States, or an average of about 1,300 per year. Hypothermia is defined as a drop in body temperature below 95 °F. In more specific terms, this happens when heat production is outweighed by heat loss. This drop can be sudden, such as jumping into a freezing lake, or occur gradually over time. The further the internal body temperature drops, the more severe the hypothermia becomes.

Symptoms: Shivering, a decrease in muscle and nerve function, sleepiness, and confusion.

Treatment and Prevention: Hypothermia can occur in temperatures above freezing if water is a factor. Therefore, one of the first steps to preventing and treating hypothermia is making sure that you are removed from water and your layers of clothing are dry. After ensuring that you are in a dry environment, the next step is slowly increasing heat production by exercise, skin to skin contact, or further insulation. An exterior heat source such as a fire or warming blanket should only be applied to someone who has already stopped shivering because rapid heating can make symptoms worse and cause heart trauma.

Note: This should not be confused with Hyperthermia which is similar but occurs at body temperatures over 104 °F.


Frostbite occurs when blood vessels beneath the skin get so cold that they contract, reducing blood and oxygen flow to certain parts of the body. Extremities furthest from the heart, such as hands, fingers, feet, toes, nose, and ears are at the highest risk. Frostbite has multiple levels of severity which dictates whether damage is permanent or not.

Symptoms: As stated above, the symptoms of frostbite depend on its current stage. Frostnip is the first stage, in which the skin turns red or pale and can become numb. Superficial frostbite, as the name suggests, only affects the top layers of skin called the epidermis and dermis. In addition to minor discoloration, this can also be indicated by the presence of a blister. Severe frostbite penetrates all the way down to the hypodermis and is signified by blueish, black discoloration. While the first two stages can heal over time, the most severe cases cause permanent tissue damage even after rewarming.

Treatment and Prevention: Treatment for frostbite, again, depends on the severity. Frostnip and superficial damage can be treated by simply protecting the affected areas from the cold with clothing, shelter, or a warm water bath. However, in severe cases, more drastic steps such as skin removal and amputation must be taken. It is important to note that you should never apply a direct heat source to your skin and massaging the affected area or breaking blisters can cause even further damage.


Also known as pernio, chilblains are inflammations that occur when the small blood vessels in your skin are exposed to cold air for several hours. Because they affect blood vessels by constriction, smokers are at a higher risk for chilblains.

Symptoms: Symptoms include itchy red areas on the skin, swelling, a slight burning sensation, and possible blisters.

Treatment and Prevention: Chilblains usually clear up on their own in a few weeks and require no additional treatment, but soothing lotion can be used to relieve the itching and swelling. If symptoms persist, you may want to see a doctor as they may have become infected.


Although it may seem counter intuitive, sunburn can happen frequently during winter months. Snow can reflect up to 80% of UV rays meaning one can receive duel exposure that they would not normally experience during the rest of the year. Furthermore, if you are in the mountains or skiing, being at a higher altitude puts you closer to the sun and at a higher risk for sunburn.

Symptoms: Most sunburns are first-degree burns which are indicated by redness, dryness, and skin that is warm to the touch. However, further exposure can lead to second and even third-degree burns, which in addition to the symptoms above, can also lead to blisters, peeling skin, and even nausea.

Treatment and Prevention: Sunscreen, clothing, and shade are the best ways to protect against a sunburn. If a burn has already occurred, moisturizer, oil-free lotion, or a cold shower can serve as a remedy.

Slip and Falls

Although these types of injuries are not limited to cold weather, the presence of ice, snow, and sleet only increase chances of them happening. According to the personal injury attorneys in Minneapolis at Knutson + Casey, slip and fall injuries spike during winter months. For example, in 2014 alone, almost 43,000 work injuries were attributable to ice, sleet or snow and most of these came in cold weather states such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. Moreover, 82% of these were due to same level falls, meaning falls that did not involve a drop from any height.

Symptoms: Common symptoms include wrist, ankle, back, neck, and head injuries.

Treatment and Prevention: Treatment will depend on the type of injury sustained but slip and falls can be prevented by wearing appropriate footwear and exercising caution over slick surfaces such as icy roads, stairs, or sidewalks.


These are just a few of the common ailments that cold weather goers can expect to face this winter. Regardless of what injury you are faced with and despite common belief, alcohol does NOT help with any of these ailments as it lowers your core body temperature. Are there any other cold weather injuries that we missed? Drop us a comment in the section below.

Header image via the Coast Guard Compass.

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