By Ms. Brandy C Ostanik (Army Medicine)November 21, 2017
FT. WAINWRIGHT , Alaska - Alaska is beautiful this time of year, snow twinkles under the lights, frost clings to tree limbs and the aurora dance in the sky. However, as the snow falls and the days get shorter, winter activities such as shoveling the driveway, cross country skiing or just playing outside at recess can easily turn from fun to dangerous.
Medical Department Activity -- Alaska has already seen frostbite victims in the emergency department for the 2017-2018 winter season.
According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, frostbite is the most common cold weather injury in interior Alaska, although, in most circumstances, the frostbite is superficial and can be treated at home.
In the simplest form, frostbite is the freezing of tissue. The onset and severity of frostbite may be affected by air temperature, wind speed, duration of exposure and the amount of area exposed. The extremities furthest from the core of the body, such as toes, nose and fingers, are the most sensitive areas and the most likely to see frostbite.
"Taking preventive action is your best defense", says Loretta Rust, a registered nurse for public health nursing at preventive medicine. "Wearing proper cold weather clothing such as a hat, gloves, scarf, and winter boots) will reduce the risk of a cold weather injury."
In addition to the typical advice of covering extremities, wearing warm clothing and taking frequent breaks to warm up, there are several other factors that can assist in combatting frostbite.
Staying hydrated, layering up and layering down depending on activity and checking the temperature rating of outdoor equipment are all important to staying safe.
"Dehydration can increase the risk of cold weather injuries, reports Rust. "Proper hydration is essential for supplying fuel and energy to the body and helps maintain heat production."
Sweating in clothing layers or from exertion, the dry Alaska air and breathing are all significant ways of losing hydration. To help combat dehydration make sure to bring fluids on outdoor excursions, cover the mouth and nose to minimize fluid loss from breathing and have warm fluids ready to drink upon returning indoors.
A second important factor in preventing frostbite is to dress in layers and to remember to layer down when necessary.
"By layering clothing, we can add or remove layers based on our activity level." says Rust. "You can also attach tabs to your zippers to make it easier to remove clothing without taking your gloves off."
The base layer of clothing is closest to the skin and is meant to wick moisture away from the body so the wearer stays dry, warm and comfortable. Polyester, wool and polypropylene make great base layers.
The next layer, or layers, depending on temperature, is used as an insulating layer that will trap warm air against the body. Down, polyester fleece, and wool are all appropriate for this layer.
The outer layer, or shell is meant to protect the insulating layers from elements such as wind and snow.
While it is important to layer clothing before going outside, it is just as important to know when to take layers off.
"Wearing clothing that hold moisture to the skin, such as cotton, will increase the risk for a cold weather injury. Clothing that is moisture wicking, such as wool, or polypropylene, helps to move moisture away from the body, keeping the skin dry" says Rust.
Rust stresses the four key points to preventing cold weather injuries are:
Be aware of the current and weather forecast.
Dress in layers.
Adjust clothing for your activity level.
Planning ahead can make the difference between life and death for you and your family.