Winter weather can bring snow, frost and ice. Does it also bring health risks?
Yes, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). More people die in the winter than at any other time of year. So it makes sense to plan for winter.
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.
What are these health risks and what can we do about them?
Heart attacks and stroke
- 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 lead to heart attack and stroke
Some people are already at higher risk of heart attack or stroke – so even more vulnerable. They include smokers, heavy drinkers, people who don’t get much exercise, people who have type 2 diabetes or are overweight, people with high blood pressure or high levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol and those under high levels of stress.
A healthy lifestyle (healthy diet and exercise - and not smoking or drinking too much alcohol) reduces the risk of heart attack or stroke, so is a useful first line of defence.
Most excess winter deaths – over a third of the total - are caused by respiratory diseases. These include pneumonia, bronchitis, flu, asthma and chronic pulmonary disease (including emphysema).
An American study found that flu epidemics tend to occur after a cold, dry spell. Another study suggest this is because the virus lasts 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 cold weather may also suppress our natural defences (the body’s immune system), perhaps in part because we don’t summer sunshine’s vitamin D. Current advice from the NHS is that everyone should take a 10mcg supplement of vitamin D, especially in the autumn and winter when there is less sunshine.
Hypothermia occurs when our body temperature falls several degrees below normal. Severe hypothermia can cause an irregular heart rate. This can lead to heart failure and death. In one recent year around 1,600 people seen in hospital in the UK were diagnosed with hypothermia. Just over 70% were aged over 60.
Others at higher risk of hypothermia include people with arthritis, Parkinson’s Disease, 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 generate heat. Older adults may have a combination of these risk factors so need particular care.
Warning signs of hypothermia in adults include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, slow and shallow breathing, a weak pulse, memory loss and slurred speech.
Common Sense Precautions to reduce hypothermia include:
- Wear layers and limit time outside when it is very cold.
- Warm footwear and gloves outside, as toes and fingers can be vulnerable.
- Maintain a living room temperature of at least 64F (18C) If you feel cold, ignore the thermometer and turn the heating up.
- Keep your bedroom temperature at a minimum of 64oF (18oC). And keep that bedroom window shut; cold night air is not good for your health.
- Avoid activities that make you sweat a lot and changing out of wet clothes – as you lose body heat more quickly.
- Take your mobile or personal alarm if you’re going out in the cold.
With energy costs rising, paying for heating can be a challenge. So check what help is available. In the UK try the Energy Saving Trust and the Citizens Advice Bureau. And make sure you claim your Winter Fuel Payment if you were born on or before May 5th1953.
The importance of home insulation
One study found, perhaps surprisingly, that Portugal and Spain had proportionately the highest excess winter deaths in Europe. And a 2013 report by the Association for Conservation of Energy found that winter kills proportionately more people in the UK than in Sweden, where temperatures regularly fall as low as -30C ( – 22F). In both studies poor home insulation was seen as a significant factor. Friends of the Earth estimate that around 22% of all excess winter deaths in England and Wales could be due to cold housing.
Keeping the house warm has its own safety hazards. Gas, coal or wood burning heaters can give off poisonous carbon monoxide fumes if they’re not working properly. So regular servicing of gas appliances by qualified engineers is a must. You can find one on the Gas Safe website. It’s also worth investing in a carbon monoxide detector.
Increased risk of slips and falls on icy pavements
one study in the UK found that the number of emergency hospital admissions due to falls increased more than twenty fold during a particularly severe winter. The risk is compounded where older people, for instance, have poor eyesight or problems with balance or memory. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA) advises older people should try to avoid going out in very cold weather, and if possible ask friends and neighbours for shopping or lifts. If you must go out, they suggest wearing good, sturdy shoes and taking a walking stick or pole. Take it slowly and don’t rush.
Fortunately, modern developments such as home delivery by supermarkets and free online communication with family and friends through Skype and similar systems can help here even if you’re both housebound. Ask someone to explain how it works if you don’t know how to use Skype.
- In winter there’s an increased risk of heart attack, respiratory disease, hypothermia, falls and carbon monoxide poisoning – as well as isolation for the elderly.
- A healthy lifestyle is the first line of defence against heart attack and respiratory disease
- Common sense measures to stay warm and dry should protect against hypothermia – seek help if your home is poorly insulated or you have difficulty paying energy bills
- Home deliveries and social media such as Skype, FaceTime etc. can reduce isolation if you’re housebound
- Plan ahead if severe cold weather is forecast
Reviewed and updated by Christine Gratus January 2017. Next review date November 2021