The thought of dehydration is usually associated with summer, especially here in the Arizona desert. Postcards and other images of Arizona often include a barren landscape with a horned cow’s skull and a saguaro cactus with a buzzard perched on it.
The message may evoke thoughts of the Sons of Pioneers’ song “Cool, Clear Water,” in which a man and his horse are on the verge of dying of thirst while crossing a desert.
Indeed, without sufficient water, the desert heat can be deadly. What many people are not aware of is that the cold can be just as deadly, if not deadlier, due to dehydration.
Cold can be deadlier than heat? Absolutely. In hot weather, the brain sends signals of the need for water. A dry mouth, parched lips and even dizziness are among signals sent to the body from the brain. Those are among signals from the brain that the body needs water, and soon. The normal human reaction is to slug down water to recharge depleted body fluids.
That does not happen in colder temperatures. Brain signals are redirected to key in on internal organs and focus on maintaining core body temperatures. Simply put, brain signals warning of dehydration do not exist in cold weather.
Robert Kenefick, University of New Hampshire associate professor of kinesiology, has conducted extensive research on the causes and effects of cold weather and dehydration. His studies and their results are quoted extensively on Web sites dealing with the issue.
Keefick said on a UNH Web site, “ People just don’t feel as thirsty when the weather is cold. Whey they don’t feel thirsty, they don’t drink as much, and this can cause hypothermia.”
Hypothermia is the condition of having an abnormally low body temperature, typically one that is dangerously low.
He said people lose a great deal of water from their bodies in winter due to respiratory fluid loss through breathing. Human bodies are also working harder under the weight of extra clothing, and sweat evaporates quickly in cold, dry air.
Kenefick explained that the body is composed of about two-thirds water, and when the total water level drops by only a few percentages, a person can become dehydrated. He said fluid deficits of 3 to 8 percent of body mass have been reported in those working in cold environments. Dehydration may also become a major problem for those who exercise in the cold.
Don’t eat snow
There are jokes cautioning people not to eat yellow snow. Snow should not be eaten under any circumstances as it drops the body’s core temperature and only contributes to a potentially lethal condition.
All joking aside, there is a connection between yellow snow and body dehydration. According to Kenefick, one way to monitor proper hydration is to examine urine output. The urine’s color should be nearly clear if a person is adequately hydrated. An amber or darker color indicates the body needs to be hydrated.
Cold-weather conditions that can be dangerous or deadly certainly do not have to involve snow.
Locally, what comes to mind are those performing outdoor work at the copper mine in Morenci, where a major mill expansion is under construction. Work at the mine, located at a 4,000-foot elevation or higher, involves nighttime and early-morning shifts, during which temperatures have recently dropped into the low 40s or are approaching the freezing mark of 32 degrees. Even moderate winds, not uncommon at the mine, can drop temperatures further via the wind chill factor.
For every mile per hour that the wind blows, the outdoor temperature drops one degree. Thus, dehydration may be a factor for those working outdoors, even if there is only a light wind blowing.
Kenefick’s study emphasizes that consumption of water only — with very few exceptions — is critical to rehydration. Most soda pops and coffees contain caffeine, which is a diuretic that further depletes water from the body via increased urination. The same goes for alcohol. Although workers are not consuming alcohol on the job, after-work consumption of alcohol has sharply increased, judging by marked increases of beer sales at various local convenience stores and other outlets in Greenlee County.
Exceptions to drinking water only are Gatorade and Pedialite. However, many whose studies recommend the two beverages emphasize the critical need to also consume plenty of water.
The cold and dehydration also bring to mind those who will be in the high country harvesting Christmas trees. Between walking to find that right tree and cutting it down, some dehydration does occur. That may apply even more to those harvesting fuel wood for their stoves and fireplaces.
To those who enjoy hiking or cross-country skiing in the mountains or hiking in the lower elevations, Keneick’s advice applies as well. Drink plenty of water and carry extra water.
Emergency services personnel with the Greenlee County Search & Rescue unit encourage all motorists to carry at least a gallon of water in their vehicles. Sheriff Larry Avila said that applies to those making short round trips from Clifton-Morenci to Safford, around 90 miles, and even shorter trips to Duncan and Clifton-Morenci, about 65 miles round trip.
Avila said, “It may not seem like a long way, but when your vehicle breaks down, especially at night, you never know how soon you’re going to get help, especially in the Black Hills between here and Safford. Carrying that extra gallon or two of water can make a real difference.”
The sheriff strongly cautioned that motorists carry a warm blanket and an extra coat in their vehicle trunks during the cold season.
“You just never know what you’re going to come up against when you’re on the road, whether it’s day or night or on a long or short trip,” he said, adding that motorists should be especially prepared during the seven- to eight-hour round trips between Greenlee County and Tucson or Phoenix.
Avila said, “There are some pretty long, lonely stretches of road between here and Tucson or Phoenix, especially through the San Carlos Reservation. There’s nothing out there for miles and miles, and cell phones don’t work in many areas through there.
"That’s something important to remember no matter where you’re going. Cell phone signals are not always available. There are dead spots in the Black Hills, between Clifton and Duncan and even Clifton and Morenci, where it’s only a couple of miles as the crow flies. Putting it simply, don’t bet your safety, or your life, on always being able to use a cell phone to call for help.”