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Cold Exposure: What Increases Your Risk of Injury?

Topic Overview

Cold injuries occur more in certain outdoor conditions, such as:

  • Cold temperatures.
    • Hypothermia can develop quickly with temperatures below freezing.
    • Frostbite develops at freezing temperatures.
    • People who live in poorly heated homes can gradually develop hypothermia in temperatures of 60°F (16°C) to 65°F (18°C).
    • Cold injuries, such as trench foot or chilblains, can develop gradually in moderate temperatures, especially when the skin is wet.
  • Wet conditions (rain, being in water, sweat).
    • Water on the skin causes you to feel cool and lose heat.
    • Wet skin freezes more quickly than dry skin.
    • Wet feet and hands can be damaged even at temperatures above freezing if they are constantly wet.
  • Wind. Heat loss increases in windy weather because the wind chill factor makes the outside temperature feel colder.
    • A wind chill factor of 1 to 3 means that proper clothing will likely protect you from frostbite.
    • A wind chill factor of 4 means that exposed skin may freeze depending on how active you are while you are outside.
    • A wind chill factor of 5 or 6 means that exposed skin can freeze very quickly. Face, hands, and feet should all be protected.
    • A wind chill factor of 7 means extreme cold conditions with a high chance of cold exposure injury.
  • High altitudes.
    • At higher altitudes, the air is "thinner" so you need to breathe more air to get the same amount of oxygen. Because the air is also drier, you may lose more body heat through the lungs by panting and being too active. Lower oxygen levels can also change your normal good judgment, such as knowing when to wear adequate protective clothing.
    • At higher altitudes, you don't shiver as much. Shivering makes the body warm.
    • At higher altitudes, cold temperatures and storms are often more intense. Shelter may be harder to find, or it may not provide enough protection.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised April 15, 2013

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