Winter weather can bring snow, frost, and ice. Does it also bring health risks?
Yes, it does. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), more people die in winter than at any other time of year.
In the last few years, this long-term trend has been exacerbated by COVID.
In England and Wales there are on average about 35,000 excess winter deaths each year.
Public Health England
So it makes sense to plan for winter to reduce the risks that cold weather brings.
But it’s not just extremely cold weather that’s the problem. It seems that moderately cold weather is responsible for more winter deaths than a spell of very cold weather.
Winter weather health risks
What are these health risks and what can we do about them?
- Respiratory diseases
- Heart attacks and stroke
- Slips and falls on icy pavements
- The lack of home insulation
Most excess winter deaths – over a third of the total – are caused by respiratory diseases.
An American study found that flu is more likely in winter when there is low humidity, i.e., when the air is cold and dry. This may be because the flu virus survives longer in cold, dry air. So, take special care with hand washing and other flu precautions after a spell of crisp, clear winter weather. (The US study was conducted with mice, although human population studies have produced similar results).
Cold weather may also suppress our natural defences (the body’s immune system), perhaps partly because our bodies don’t produce summer sunshine’s Vitamin D.
Helping us to build a stronger immune system is one of the many benefits of Vitamin D.
Current advice from the NHS is that everyone should consider taking a Vitamin D supplement in the autumn and winter when there is less sunshine.
Heart attack and stroke
The number of deaths from cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and stroke go up in winter. The British Heart Foundation (BHF) explains that cold weather can affect your heart by:
- increasing your heart rate and blood pressure.
- making your heart work much harder to keep your body warm.
- causing changes to your blood that can increase the risk of developing blood clots and can lead to heart attack and stroke.
Some people are already at higher risk of heart attack or stroke, so they are even more vulnerable.
A healthy lifestyle (eating a healthy diet, taking regular exercise, not smoking, and not drinking too much alcohol) reduces the risk of both heart attack and stroke. Healthy lifestyle choices are a useful first line of defence.
Older people are at risk
Hypothermia occurs when our body temperature falls several degrees below normal. Severe hypothermia can cause an irregular heart rate, which can lead to heart failure and death. During one year, about 1,600 people seen in hospital in the UK were diagnosed with hypothermia. Over 70% of them were aged over 60.
Who else is at risk?
Others at higher risk of hypothermia include people with arthritis, Parkinson’s Disease, or with diabetes, heart disease, respiratory diseases, poor circulation, memory impairment, and mental illness. Those living alone, in poorly insulated or damp homes, with limited income, are also vulnerable, especially if they have difficulty moving around to stay warm.
Older adults may have a combination of these risk factors, so they need particular care.