How to Avoid Cold Stress

By Stephanie Watson @YourCareE
October 25, 2023
How to Avoid Cold Stress

Exposure to winter elements can be dangerous. Learn precautions to take if you work outdoors this winter and what to do if you have symptoms of cold stress.

Office jobs aren’t for everyone. Some people prefer to be as far away from a desk as possible. Whether you work construction, teach skiing, or fuel airplanes for a living, you’ll spend most of your days outdoors.

While an outside job might give you more freedom and fresh air than an office job, it will also expose you to the elements of winter, which could be dangerous if you don’t take the right safety measures.

When you’re outdoors for long periods of time in the cold air and wind, your body works harder to maintain a healthy internal temperature. Lose too much heat, and you could end up with cold stress. As your body tries to keep your core temperature, it channels blood flow away from your hands, feet, and other extremities to warm your internal organs. Without enough blood flow, parts of your body can freeze, permanently damaging tissues. 


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Symptoms of cold stress from potentially serious conditions

Hypothermia is a dangerous drop in body temperature (below 95 degrees Fahrenheit) that happens when your internal thermometer can’t keep up with the ambient air. Because hypothermia can affect your ability to think clearly, you might not realize there’s a problem.

Warning signs of hypothermia include shivering, extreme fatigue, slowed breathing, and confusion. If you notice those signs, go indoors, change into dry clothing (if you’re wet), and cover yourself in layers of blankets or towels to get warm. For severe symptoms like trouble walking or confusion, call 911 or have one of your co-workers call for help right away.

Frostbite occurs when freezing temperatures damage your skin.

“Frostbite usually affects the face, nose, ears, fingers and toes,” said board-certified dermatologist Amy J. Derick, MD, FAAD, clinical instructor of dermatology at Northwestern University.

Signs that you have frostbite include numbness, tingling, stinging, and bluish or waxy-colored skin. If you see those symptoms, get indoors right away. Warm the frostbitten area in warm water or use body heat. Don’t rub your skin because you could damage it further.

Trench foot is damage to your feet that happens when they’ve been exposed to wet and cold. It doesn’t have to be freezing outside to get trench foot. Soaking wet feet lose heat quickly, even in temperatures as high as 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The cold and wetness prevent enough blood from flowing to your feet, which can cause tissue to die.

Signs of trench foot include:

  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Blisters
  • Bleeding under your skin
  • A purple or grayish color on your foot (a sign of tissue death, called gangrene)

Take off your wet shoes and socks as soon as possible and dry your feet. Then get medical attention.

Plan ahead

When you can’t avoid going outside in cold weather, dress appropriately.

  • Wear loose layers. Loose clothing lets more blood flow to your body, which keeps you warmer. Layering allows you to remove clothing if the temperature rises.
  • Choose moisture-wicking materials such as wool and synthetic fabrics to keep wetness away from your body.
  • Wear a coat that’s both water- and wind-resistant.
  • Add a hat, gloves, and insulated, waterproof boots to keep you warm from head to toe.
  • Bring along an extra set of clothes, so if you do get wet you can change into dry clothes right away.

On extremely cold days, plan regular breaks into your schedule if your company allows. Go inside or at least into a heated car or truck to warm up periodically. Carry a thermos of coffee, soup, or other warm liquid. Also bring a thermometer so you can monitor your body temperature. Keep an eye on your coworkers, and ask them to look out for you.


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October 25, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN