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Guide Health: The cold, hard truth

If you do experience a cold injury, warm the area gently – no rubbing!

In cold weather, you will obviously want to be dressed warmly to avoid frostbite, frost nip, or even more serious injury. But it may not be as simple as you think.

Cold damage is caused by ice crystals forming in your skin and tissues. It is this direct damage that leads to tissue death.

About 80 Canadians die each year because of freezing to death, but many more may experience tissue damage due to cold temperatures.

Frost nip is the superficial injury that occurs prior to frostbite. You probably have experienced this, especially on exposed areas like your nose or ears.

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You probably also have heard of chilblains which results from repetitive exposure to mild, dry cold temperatures, as well as trench foot which results from exposure to wet, cold conditions.

The way to deal with cold injuries is to prevent them. If you work outdoors, you want of course to dress well and to warm up regularly. You also know that mittens are preferred to gloves because they keep your hands warmer.

While mittens, toques and some boots may not always be fashionable, wearing them will keep you warm. A scarf or balaclava can be added to keep your face warm especially on windy days.

Opt for synthetic fibres, fleece, or wool blends which will “wick” moisture away from your body and keep you dry and warm. Cotton fabrics retain moisture which can contribute to frostbite.

The use of alcohol and sedatives increases your risk of cold injury because they dull your mental awareness and impair your judgment. You may decide to spend time outside when it is too cold to do so or when you are not dressed warmly enough!

As well, alcohol reduces your shivering reflex and also causes dilation of your blood vessels. The result is that you cool down even faster.

If you have experienced frost nip or frostbite previously, your tissues are more susceptible to future cold injuries, so protect them well from the cold.

Also be aware that older individuals have a decreased capacity for keeping warm, and thus should take extra care to keep warm. Psychiatric illness may mean that you do not understand to dress well when going outdoors on cold days.

Any nervous system disease may also mean that you do not feel cold as you should, so you don’t dress warmly enough and don’t move indoors where it is warmer.

Blood vessel disease means that your circulation is not as good as it should be, thus your body is not able to warm itself as efficiently. Nicotine in tobacco products is one culprit that reduces your circulation.

Conditions that interfere with your metabolism such as low blood sugar or low thyroid levels, mean you may not be able to keep warm. If you have diabetes, you have a double whammy of nerve damage and reduced circulation, meaning you definitely need to dress warmly.

Ideally, check the weather before you go outdoors in cold weather, and certainly pay attention to the wind chill factor. Dress warmly in layers of clothing and stay dry. If you do experience a cold injury, warm the area gently — no rubbing — by immersing it in warm water.

And, if you notice blisters or experience pain, have it checked immediately. But remember, prevention is the best strategy. Keep warm and dry!

About the author

Contributor

Marie Berry is a lawyer/pharmacist interested in health and education.

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