FORT RUCKER, Ala. (October 11, 2016) - It's an annual ritual: With fall and winter approaching, the days get shorter and the temperature slowly drops. As cooler weather approaches, it's crucial that Soldiers understand the importance of protecting themselves to avoid becoming a cold weather injury statistic.

"Cold weather injuries are preventable," said Maj. David W. DeGroot, Ph.D., deputy chief for clinical investigation, Tripler Army Medical Center, Hawaii. "Knowing how to wear and use cold weather clothing, especially under a variety of weather and activity conditions, is one of the best ways to help combat cold weather injuries."

DeGroot added that dressing for cold weather should suit the activity, not necessarily the temperature.

"When it's 20 degrees Fahrenheit outside, the clothing requirement for someone doing light activity is different than someone doing a strenuous activity," he said.

The October 2015 issue of the Medical Surveillance Monthly Report, a publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch, indicates that from July 2010 through June 2015, 775 Soldiers received diagnosis of a cold weather injury.

Although anyone can suffer a cold weather injury, some Soldiers are more at risk than others. Previous cold weather injuries, drinking alcohol, using nicotine, dehydration and long exposure to the cold are some of the factors that could jeopardize a Soldier's health.

"The right conditions can help set up anyone for failure when it comes to cold weather injuries, regardless of their rank, age, fitness level or gender," said Col. David C. Romine, U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center command surgeon. "However, some individuals are more susceptible than others. Soldiers with a history of injuries are much more likely to develop an injury sooner or a more severe injury in the future.

"Prevention must be factored into any pre-mission planning, and part of that preparation involves proper use of clothing and equipment by Soldiers and continual interaction by leaders with their troops," Romine continued. "Leaders must be present among their Soldiers and intentionally alert for the signs and symptoms of cold weather injury."

Hypothermia, cold/dry (freezing) and cold/wet (non-freezing) are the classifications for cold weather injuries. Frostbite is a more familiar name for freezing injuries, and the most common non-freezing injuries are trench foot and chilblains.

According to the Army Public Health Center (Provisional), it's important to recognize symptoms and seek medical assistance immediately once an injury is identified or suspected.

"Preventing cold weather injuries is the responsibility of everyone, from commanders and leaders to individual Soldiers," Romine said. "While this may seem obvious, we need to continually reiterate the awareness of seasonal weather-related injuries, and cold weather issues are no exception."

Misnomers about cold weather could result in serious injury or even death, and DeGroot cautioned Soldiers to understand the facts before they head into frigid temperatures.

"There's a misconception that fluid replacement is not as important during winter as summer," DeGroot said. "Water loss due to respiration is higher in winter since cold air is drier. Soldiers may fail to drink enough water or other fluids because it's inconvenient and uncomfortable to urinate when it's cold outside."

He also said the belief that caffeine is a diuretic is another myth.

"For individuals who are regular caffeine drinkers, caffeine does not have a diuretic affect," he said. "It's only for those who usually do not drink caffeine-containing beverages that it causes a mild diuretic effect."

Soldiers are not the only ones vulnerable to cold weather injuries. DeGroot said, "Anyone who spends time outside in the cold is at risk, including kids playing in the snow and family members enjoying recreational winter sports."

"While cold weather injuries sideline Soldiers and impact a unit's readiness, it's just as important for Soldiers to take their cold weather training home and share what they've learned with their loved ones," said Command Sergeant Major Terry D. Burton, USACRC. "If you head out to go skiing or snowboarding, take precautions, protect yourself from the elements and always let someone know where you are.

"Many of us will be traveling home for the holidays and safety might be the furthest thing from our minds, but it shouldn't be," Burton added. "Safety is a state of mind that we all need to embrace, no matter what we're doing, where we are or who we're with."