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Safety at Steigerwaldt: Frostbite and Hypothermia

Welcome to November! Fall colors have passed us, we’ve had our first snowfall, and now it is time to think about winter! November is the transition month of fall ending and winter starting here in Wisconsin.  The weather varies a lot from day to day, so it’s important to check the weather report every day as it starts to get colder and windy.  Many people also spend a lot of time outside as hunting is also continuing this month with deer gun season starting mid-month, and the continuation of deer bow, grouse/woodcock, duck/goose, and a few others.

This month and the rest of winter can be cold and can bring cold enough air to cause cold weather-related injuries. The main cold weather injuries that can occur are as follows:

Frostbite affects exposed skin, especially small body parts such as fingers and toes. The signs of frostbite are very cold skin that is numb, becomes hard, and turns pale in color. You will have high discomfort in these areas during this process, and it is a warning that you need to get somewhere warm before the damage is irreversible. A mild case of frostbite can heal on its own over time as long as the affected area is kept warm. Severe cases of frostbite will not heal on its own and will require medical attention to prevent further damage of the body part. If frostbite is severe enough, a person can lose fingers, toes, or areas of skin.

Frostbite can be prevented by simply staying warm while bracing the elements of winter. Some of the simple gear to bring or wear outdoors with you while working or for leisure is:

  • Winter hat
  • Winter coat
  • Long underwear
  • Wind breaker
  • Insulated boots/ winter muck boots
  • Gloves/ mittens – Mittens rated from -20 to -40 can be very helpful during cold blasts as fingers are very common appendages to get frost bite. Mittens provide heat to all your fingers as they are in one space, where gloves keep the heat in on each individual finger and each finger is exposed to the elements.
  • Buff/dickie/face cover – protects your face from frost damage when it is cold and windy.
  • Flannel lined jeans/seal skin.

If you go into the field with all the correct gear but still feel you are getting cold, it is helpful to start moving around to increase your blood flow to warm you up. It is also important to not go into the field overdressed because this can cause you to sweat. When you sweat in cold air, you are now putting extra energy into keeping that fluid warm. If you stop moving, the sweat will become cool and, in the end, cause you to feel cold or hypothermic. The best way is to pack extra layers with you and use them as needed.

Hypothermia is when your body temperature begins to cool to unsafe temperatures which can be deadly. The most common ways to catch hypothermia are sweating in the cold that then cools you too much, being submerged in cold water then being exposed to cold air (whether its falling through ice or snow melting on you), being caught in a cold rain, or not dressing warm enough. As you can see, most instances that lead to hypothermia are caused by water and cold. Hypothermia is also possible in above freezing temperatures as these temperatures still cool your body to a dangerous temperature. The most common symptoms of hypothermia are:

  • Shivering
  • Exhaustion – this also means that your body is using up its stored energy; food can help you regain energy.
  • Confusion or memory loss – this mostly occurs from the brain cooling too much and not working properly.
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness

The best ways to help someone with hypothermia is to:

  • Get them to a warm place.
  • Remove any wet clothing as this will only continue to take away body heat.
  • Heat the core of the body first as it is the most important, followed by limbs.
  • Heated blankets, warm drinks, dry clothes, a source of heat are the best methods.
  • Skin to skin is a way to heat someone but is not recommended as it can also cause the helpful friend to become cold.
  • Avoid heating the person with hypothermia too fast as this can cause them to go into shock.

It is also important to bring snacks with you to the field during winter as you are burning more calories than usual. While burning calories might sound like a good thing to some people, it is quite the opposite, as running low on energy in winter is dangerous. Calories lead to the heat that keeps you warm while outside. It is also important to continue to drink water. Even though you aren’t sweating, your body is still constantly losing water and requires it.

As the weather cools down and the ice starts to form on rivers and lakes, remember to be smart before walking out on it, and remember to go into the cold prepared! Have an excellent hunting season and wonderful Thanksgiving!

Nate Loeffler