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Aeromedical Forum

Cold Injury: Flying to Frostbite Falls

If you've looked out the window recently, you've probably noticed its winter in Minnesota. Thus, it's time to talk about how you can easily loose bits and pieces of your anatomy on the tarmac if you are not respectful of the cold. Not all of us have the luxury of a heated hangar. When we're flying cross-country in winter, it usually means doing some pre-flights on a windy, frigid stretch of concrete. That's an ideal set-up for freezing some part of you-Frostbite!

The mildest form of Frost Bite is Frost Nip, something that almost every resident of L'Etoile du Nord has experienced. First, your skin pales or turns red and feels very cold. Keep trying to fix that loose fairing and you feel prickling and numbness in the exposed skin. As you finally get in the cockpit and the heater cranks up, your skin warms and you may feel pain and tingling. Frost Nip doesn't permanently damage the skin. It's just a pain in the finger!

If that darn fairing just won't bolt back on and your exposure increases, you will progress to Superficial Frostbite. That skin that was red turns a pale white. As you rewarm, the skin may look mottled, blue or purple. You may notice stinging, burning and swelling. A fluid-filled blister sometimes appears 24 to 36 hours later. You might have some permanent tissue damage.

If you are possessed with a bad case of Gotta-get-there-itis and stay out on the tarmac even longer, you can progress to Severe (Deep) Frostbite. Here, the skin and underlying tissues freeze solid. The finger, toe, or nose becomes numb. All sense of cold, pain, or discomfort is lost. The joints don't bend. The muscles don't work. Blisters may pop up 24 to 48 hours later. The underlying area then turns black and hard as tissue dies. You're screwed!

If you are experiencing anything worse than Frost Nip, seeking medical attention is a very good thing to do. If you have lost all sense of cold, pain, or discomfort in an exposed area, you should head into the ER for sure. This is an indication of Severe Frostbite and even with the best of treatment, you might be losing a toe or finger!

Of course, there are a number of things you can do to protect yourself from getting into that situation to begin with. First of all, wear suitable clothing. That seems like a no brainer but how often do you go on a winter flight and neglect to pack clothes suitable for walking out of a forced landing?

Risk of frost bite ramps up dramatically in temperatures below 5 degrees F. Wind chills below -160F can cause severe frost bite in less than 30 minutes. A number of things can increase your chances of getting frost bite. Alcohol or drugs, smoking, dehydration, and mental or physical exhaustion lower your resistance. Being at high altitude reduces oxygen supply to tissues and allows damage to occur more easily. Keep that in mind on your next flight up to the ski slopes.

One final caution: if you begin to experience intense shivering, slurred speech, loss of coordination or drowsiness, get out of the cold fast and seek medical attention. These are signs of hypothermia-a lowering of your body core temperature. If that continues, loss of consciousness, heart arrhythmias and death can follow. Let the mechanic fix that fairing in the morning!

Fly wisely. See you next month.

As always, comments, questions and suggestions are welcome:


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