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Winter Warning: Tips for Preventing Frostbite and Hypothermia


Outdoor sports don't have to stop just because it is cold. In fact, many hikers, bikers, runners, and obviously skiers and snowshoers relish the invigorating cold of the winter months.

Before you head out for a day-long excursion in seriously cold weather, take the following steps to avoid frostbite and hypothermia.

Stay Warm and Dry With Three Layers of Clothing

Wear three layers of clothing:

  • An outer layer made of water-repellent and wind-proof material such as Goretex or nylon
  • A middle layer of wool or synthetic fabric such as Qualofil or Pile to absorb sweat and retain insulation
  • A synthetic layer such as polypropylene or Capilene closest to your skin to wick away moisture from perspiration

It is just as important to stay dry as it is to stay warm, including keeping sweat away from your skin. Bring extra clothes to change into if they become wet, especially from sweat.

Cover Up

Cover your head, face, and neck with a hat (or hood) and scarf or a balaclava. Since mittens are warmer, but gloves allow more use of your fingers, try wearing lightweight gloves under your mittens in case you need to use your hands. Keep your feet warm and dry with two pairs of socks (wool or synthetic).

Stay Hydrated

Dehydration can contribute to hypothermia. Drink plenty of water and drinks with electrolytes if you will be active for a long period of time. Avoid drinks with alcohol and caffeine.

Eat for Heat

Your body needs food to fuel your exercise and to generate body heat, so do not head out on an empty stomach. And bring along plenty of snacks, like trail mix, energy bars, fruit, and bread.

Monitor Your Energy

Fatigue can contribute to hypothermia, so be aware of your energy level and plan the length of your excursion accordingly. Rest when necessary and cut the outing short if you are uncertain about your stamina.

Bring a Buddy

A friend can help you if you get tired and keep an eye on your face, cheeks, and ears for signs of frostbite. Do periodic checks for cold, wet, and numb areas, especially your face, feet, and hands.

Choose Your Days Wisely

Temperatures below freezing (32°F or 0 C) and slightly higher temperatures accompanied by wind chill effects are risk factors for hypothermia and frostbite. Keep an eye on weather forecasts and plan your outdoor activities for the relatively warmer days without snow or rain.

RESOURCES:

Appalachian Mountain Club
http://www.outdoors.org

Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
http://familydoctor.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Red Cross
http://www.redcross.ca

Health Canada
http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

References:

Curtis R. Outdoor action guide to hypothermia and cold weather injuries. Outdoor Action website. Available at: http://www.princeton.edu/~oa/safety/hypocold.shtml. Accessed May 19, 2014.

Frostbite. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated December 15, 2011. Accessed May 19, 2014.

Hypothermia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated November 19, 2012. Accessed May 19, 2014.

Keep your warmth: how to avoid, recognize, and treat hypothermia. Appalachian Mountain Club website. Available at: http://www.outdoors.org/recreation/hiking/hiking-hypothermia.cfm. Accessed May 19, 2014.



Last reviewed May 2014 by Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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