with meteorologists low temperature alert and potentially severe overnight frosts across the UK from Wednesday, the UK Health Security Agency is urging people to keep warm and watch out for others most at risk from the cold. But what are the dangers posed by cold weather?
How does cold weather directly affect health?
Public health officials are more concerned with the predictable and preventable impact of cold weather. When temperatures plummet, hospitals treat more patients with heart attacks, strokes and respiratory infections, including influenza. There is also an increased risk of hypothermia, when prolonged exposure to cold causes body temperature to drop below 35°C, and when conditions are icy, more falls and related injuries.
What other health problems arise in the cold?
Beyond the direct impact of cold weather on health, the cold also has indirect effects on well-being. Cold temperatures are linked to more mental health problems, such as depression. Other risks include carbon monoxide poisoning from poorly maintained or poorly ventilated furnaces, and fuel-burning heating and cooking appliances.
Who is most at risk?
There are many ways to be vulnerable to the cold. Children and the elderly are clearly at risk, although for different reasons. Children, particularly those under the age of five, have small bodies, which means they lose heat quickly. Older people, especially those over 75, are more likely to be frail, and if they are socially isolated, they may not have people checking on them, for example, to make sure their home is warm enough.
Among those most affected are the most disadvantaged. Homeless people, or those who sleep outdoors, are much more exposed to the cold than others and many will die on the streets this winter. People who don’t have enough fuel to heat their homes, or who live in moldy homes, are also on the highest risk list. So are people with mental health problems, including dementia, which can prevent people from taking care of themselves.
A large part of the others are also vulnerable. Pregnant women should be careful, mainly due to the potential impact of cold on the fetus. Extreme cold, like extreme heat, has been linked to low birth weight in babies People with underlying health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and diabetes, may experience worse symptoms. Both cholesterol and blood pressure tend to rise in the colder months, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. With diabetes, blood sugar tends to rise in cold weather, and if people’s hands get cold, it can make blood tests difficult.
At what temperature do the risks increase?
Official figures on winter excess deaths suggest the health impact begins to rise when average temperatures drop below 12°C, but there are regional differences and factors such as how well a person’s home is insulated. they come into play. Research from UCL and the University of Bristol found that cold snaps, when the temperature drops for a few days, doubled the risk heart attack and stroke.
What about the indoor temperature?
The UKHSA advises people with pre-existing medical conditions to heat their homes to a comfortable temperature, aiming to keep at least 18°C in the most frequently used rooms, such as the living room and bedroom, and to keep windows the bedrooms locked at night.