Four injuries to watch out for in the cold weather

By Thomas Ems, MD, emergency medicine resident

Cold weather is no joke and if it isn’t taken seriously it can lead to serious injuries. While frostbite and hypothermia get the most attention of all the cold weather injuries, there are other lesser-known injuries that may occur due to less severe winter weather conditions. Here are four cold weather injuries to watch out for when the temperatures begin to drop:

  1. Trench foot is caused by exposure to consistent cool, wet conditions which causes damage to the soft tissues and nerves. Symptoms include tingling or numbness and a pale, immobile foot. It can progress to gangrene, dead tissue caused by a lack of blood flow or infection, if severe. Luckily, treatment is simple: clean, dry, gently warm and elevate the foot. Trench foot can be prevented by exchanging wet socks and boots for dry footwear.
  2. Chilblains, also known as pernio, is caused by exposure to cold. This injury is a result from damage to the small blood vessels in the skin of the affected area. Chilblains typically affects feet, legs, ears or hands and causes the skin to become numb, itchy or tingly. The skin will appear red and swollen. It can develop into blisters or ulcers if left untreated. Treatment is similar to trench foot: re-warm, bandage and elevate the extremity.
  3. Panniculitis is an injury to the fat under the skin and is caused by prolonged exposure to temperatures just above freezing. It is seen most common in children exposed to cold, but it is also encountered on the thighs and buttocks of individuals involved in equestrian activities and winter outdoor sports. There is no treatment for cold panniculitis, and sometimes a residual skin dimpling or defect can occur. Prevention is key.
  4. Cold urticaria is a rash that looks raised, red and shares a lot of features with the rash we commonly call “hives.” It is caused by hypersensitivity to cold air or water and works very similarly to other allergic reactions. The treatment for cold urticaria involves medication and should be treated by a doctor, especially since symptoms tend to last for a while or reoccur. Rarely in certain situations, it can develop into a life-threatening disorder.

For all of these conditions, treatment should initially be started at home, followed by a prompt visit to your doctor. Remember to enjoy the cooler weather, but be prepared with warm, dry clothes to help prevent any injuries from occurring.

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