by Ned Stoller Ned Stoller

Outdoor sports such as hunting and fishing are very enjoyable for many folks.  Wintertime sportsmen like ice fishing and hunting among other sporting activities like skiing, sledding with the kids, or just enjoying the beauty of winter and spending time outside.  Those who work outdoors (for any length of time) in cold weather climates also are exposed to the elements for varying lengths of time.     

The physically disabled man or woman is just as able to enjoy these activities as the next person; and many do.  However, extra care must be taken to avoid the serious or even life-threatening problems associated with cold weather:  frostbite and hypothermia.

Of course, these are just as dangerous to anyone.  However, those of us who are disabled or limited in some function or another must  be particularly cautious.  Naturally, your first thought would be someone with a spinal cord injury (SCI) causing paraplegia or quadriplegia is at most risk (and you would be right), but other conditions can lend to these dangers also, such as multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, arthritis, heart problems, or even the condition of not being young anymore!  Lack of sensation in extremities can easily lead to hypothermia or frostbite – and those with SCI, diabetes, or MS are particularly at high risk.

On top of this, it has been shown in medical studies that a person with a SCI is at risk of of subnormal body temperature even in ambient temperatures of around 70 degrees F.  In fact, one study revealed 65% of people with SCI in a room kept at the temperature of 72 degrees F showed subnormal or even hypothermic body temperatures at one point or another.

Being outside during the winter is not the only time we need to be concerned about hypothermia – a cool or cold workshop can be just as dangerous as being outside in subfreezing temps -especially since we are not as likely to be thinking about the dangers of hypothermia while being in our workshop, garage, or barn.  If your work area is cold or even cool watch out.

Prevention is of course the best treatment, but let’s first look at the signs of these dangerous conditions:

Most of us know what hypothermia is – the word “hypo” means “below” and “thermia” means temperature, so “hypothermia” means low  temperature.

Signs of Hypothermia:

  • Shivering
  • Clumsiness
  • Slurred speech or mumbling
  • Confusion or poor decision making
  • Drowsiness
  • Cold skin, often pale or blue
  • Apathy or lack of concern for your condition
  • Progressive loss of consciousness
  • Weak pulse
  • Slow shallow breathing

Hypothermia usually begins with very mild signs of the symptoms above, usually shivering, clumsiness, and slurred speech. With worsening hypothermia, these early signs become more obvious along with the others listed such as the cold skin, apathy, and confusion.

Treatment of mild hypothermia is basically getting the person warm again – removing wet clothing, wrapping in blankets or sleeping bags (if necessary with a warm person or between two warm people) moving inside,  drinking warm (not hot) fluids.  

Moderate to severe hypothermia cases should be taken to the hospital immediately for expert care.  If it will take longer to get to adequate medical facilities, moderate to severe cases are often best treated by placing two people in a sleeping bag together – naked skin against naked skin is best – although this sounds extreme, many lives have been saved by this method.

Frostbite is simply the freezing of extremities.  Initial signs include numbness, cold, white or grayish yellow skin, or a hard and waxy feel.  Skin might also itch or burn.  Ears, fingers, nose and feet are the usual danger areas.  As the skin is thawed, it becomes red and painful, or it may even blister and harden.

Frostbite Treatment:

  • Protect your skin from further exposure. If you’re outside, warm frostbitten hands by tucking them into your armpits. Protect your face, nose or ears by covering the area with dry, gloved hands. Don’t rub the affected area and never rub snow on frostbitten skin.
  • Get out of the cold. Once you’re indoors, remove wet clothes.
  • Gradually warm frostbitten areas. Put frostbitten hands or feet in warm water — 104 to 107.6 F (40 to 42 C). Wrap or cover other areas in a warm blanket. Don’t use direct heat, such as a stove, heat lamp, fireplace or heating pad, because these can cause burns before you feel them on your numb skin.
  • Don’t walk on frostbitten feet or toes if possible. This further damages the tissue.
  • If there’s any chance the affected areas will freeze again, don’t thaw them. If they’re already thawed, wrap them up so that they don’t become frozen again.
  • Get emergency medical help. If numbness or sustained pain remains during warming or if blisters develop, seek medical attention

(Thanks to the Mayo Clinic for these tips)

“Prevention is the best medicine.”  Whoever came up with that saying should get a medal.  It is much easier to keep hypothermia or frostbite away than it is to treat them.  A good acronym to remember is C.O.L.D.:

Cold:    keep your clothing clean.
Overheating:    very important to avoid this

Layers:    Keep your clothes layered to allow removing or putting back on as needed.

Dry:  Keep those clothes dry!

Follow these rules and common sense and you should be fine.  If you are limited in mobility, make the safe choice and have friends nearby or ways of communicating if you get stuck or are in need of help.  If you are away from shelter, come prepared with extra clothing or blankets if there is a chance of getting wet.  Wheelchair users should be very careful to use blankets or sleeping bags to keep their limbs warm.  

If you are working outside or in cool temperatures, make use of heaters or blowers to warm your work area.  Kerosene or diesel heaters work great and put out a lot of heat.  As long as you have an electrical source, these work wonderfully to heat shops or barns or even outside within limited range.

Enjoy the benefits of winter sports or work more comfortably while outside, and keep these tips in mind while you are in cold temperatures.