*Military OneSource does not provide medical counseling services for issues such as substance abuse, suicide prevention, or posttraumatic stress disorder. The article below is provided for informational purposes only. Military OneSource can provide referrals to your local military treatment facility (MTF), TRICARE, or another appropriate resource.
In rain or shine, heat or cold, service members sometimes have to be prepared to get out and exercise or train. But extreme weather conditions, or even just prolonged direct sun exposure, can lead to illness or injury. Find out more about how outdoor activity can put you at risk and how a few simple, common-sense precautions can help you prevent illness or injury.
Exercising and training in hot, humid weather can lead to serious illness unless you take steps to prevent it. Heat injuries include
- Sunburn. Sunburn is caused by overexposure of the skin to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays. Minor sunburn is a first-degree burn. A second-degree burn is marked by skin tenderness, swelling, blisters, and pain. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends wearing protective clothing and sunscreen with an SPF of at least fifteen (even on cloudy days) to prevent exposure to harmful UV rays and sunburn. Also, it's a good idea to take advantage of shaded resting areas whenever possible.
- Prickly heat. Also known as heat rash, prickly heat is a harmless but irritating skin condition common in hot, humid climates. Sweat, trapped under the skin by clogged ducts, causes prickly heat. Symptoms of the condition include itching, irritation, small blisters, and large red areas of affected skin. Keeping your skin as cool and dry as possible can help you avoid prickly heat.
- Heat cramps. Heat cramps are painful muscle cramps that can cause the muscles to jerk involuntarily. Heat cramps usually affect people who exercise or work in hot environments. Any stressed muscle group is subject to heat cramps, but those most often affected are the calf, arm, abdominal, and back muscles. Losing fluids and electrolytes through sweating can contribute to heat cramps, so drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
- Heat exhaustion. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, fainting, and elevated body temperature (101 to 102 degrees). To avoid heat exhaustion, stay hydrated and take regular rest breaks.
- Heatstroke. The most serious heat-related illness, heatstroke can occur during training or work in a hot environment. Heat stroke occurs when the body's cooling system can no longer control the body's temperature. The body becomes unable to sweat and body temperature rises quickly. Heatstroke symptoms include red, hot, dry skin; a temperature of 103 or higher; rapid heartbeat; severe headache; dizziness; confusion; and unconsciousness. Staying well hydrated and not overexerting yourself in hot weather can prevent heatstroke.
- Hyponatremia. Sometimes called "water intoxication," hyponatremia is a condition characterized by harmfully low levels of sodium in the blood. This can result from drinking too much water during periods of intense training or exercise. Symptoms of hyponatremia include weakness, confusion, nausea, or swelling of the feet and hands. To help avoid hyponatremia, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends
- drinking 500 ml (17 ounces) of fluid 2 hours before exercise
- continuing to consume cool drinks at regular intervals to replace water lost through sweating
- adding electrolytes to fluid for prolonged intense exercise lasting more than one hour
- Hypernatremia. Hypernatremia can be caused by dehydration. This excessive fluid loss causes a high level of sodium in the blood. When fluid is lost and not replaced, sodium can't be excreted adequately from the body. Avoid this condition by slowly drinking adequate amounts of water or electrolyte-replacing drinks.
Exercise and training in cold conditions can also lead to injuries. Here are ways to recognize and prevent them:
- Trench foot. Also known as "immersion foot," trench foot is caused by exposure to damp, cold environments, resulting in tissue damage to the foot. The longer the exposure to wetness and cold, the greater the chance of injury. Injury may be temporary or may permanently damage the feet, particularly the nerves. Symptoms of trench foot include burning, tingling, or numbness in the feet.
- Chilblains. Chilblains are caused by repeated exposure to cold temperatures. Signs include redness, itching, and possible swelling of the affected areas. Later, the affected areas can become sores, which may become infected. Noses, ears, cheeks, fingers, and toes are most likely to be affected by chilblains.
- Frostbite. Freezing of the skin and possibly of the body tissues underneath is known as frostbite. It is most likely to affect the ears, feet, hands, or nose, but can affect any part of the body. Severe frostbite can affect the blood vessels, which, in extreme cases, can lead to gangrene and amputation of the affected areas.
- Hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when your body can no longer maintain a normal core body temperature in a cold environment. Symptoms of the condition include gradual loss of mental and physical abilities. Severe hypothermia can lead to death.
Preventing cold-related injuries
To stay safe in cold conditions, follow these tips:
- Use a buddy system. Service members should check each other for signs of cold exposure on the face.
- Be aware. Check yourself periodically for signs of injury to your hands, feet, and other body parts.
- Wear the right clothing for the conditions. Make sure your cold-weather clothing can serve multiple purposes: keeping you warm, protecting you from the elements, and freedom of movement during physical activity. Wear clothing made of a non-cotton material that will help keep you drier by "wicking" moisture away from your body.