Health Impacts of Extreme Cold Weather
Cold weather can be harmful to your health. Those most at risk of cold related illness include people who work outdoors, people with pre-existing heart conditions or respiratory illnesses, older adults, infants, young children and those who are experiencing homelessness. However, all members of the general population can be affected by cold weather.
Cold weather can result in the development of cold-related injuries, such as frostnip, frostbite and hypothermia.
Cold weather can also exacerbate existing conditions, such as cardiovascular and respiratory disease. For vulnerable groups such as people experiencing homelessness, prolonged exposure to cold, damp conditions can also result in the development of trenchfoot, also known as immersion foot.
If you suspect frostbite or hypothermia, seek medical attention immediately.
Staying Active and Safe
- Wear waterproof and windproof outer layers, a hat and warm mittens.
- Choose wool, silk or polypropylene inner layers of clothing; these materials hold more body heat than cotton.
- Change into dry clothing as soon as possible if you get wet from precipitation, sweat or submersion in water.
- Wear several layers of warm lightweight clothing when shovelling snow and follow medical advice if you have a history of back or heart problems.
- Reschedule outdoor activities and limit time outdoors if severe weather is forecast.
- Notify friends or family where you will be when going on outdoor activities, such as hiking and skiing.
Walking on Ice
- Take care when walking on ice, many cold-weather injuries result from slips and falls on ice-covered surfaces.
- Keep your steps and walkways free of ice and snow by using rock salt or other de-icing compounds.
- Call 311 for information on sidewalk and snow clearing and free snow removal services for senior and disabled persons.
- Listen to the weather forecast.
- Avoid travelling in low visibility and on ice covered roads.
- Clear your vehicle windows of all frost and snow so you can clearly see pedestrians, cyclists and other road users.
- Take a charged mobile phone.
- Make sure your car has a survival kit including a first aid kit, water and additional warm clothing
- Let someone know your destination and when you expect to arrive.
- Cycle along the City’s network of cycling snow routes, which receive enhanced levels of snowplowing, salting and snow removal.
Avoiding Drinking Alcohol
- Drinking alcohol increases blood flow in the vessels close to your skin, making you feel warm even though you are losing body heat.
Get Your Home Ready for Winter
- Ensure that indoor temperature is a minimum of 21° C. Toronto has a bylaw that requires landlords to provide heat and maintain a minimum temperature of 21° C between September 15th and June 1st of the following year (Municipal Code Chapter 497 Article 1).
- Conduct regular maintenance, including ensuring your heating system is working properly.
- Prepare for the possibility of power outages.
Frostnip and Frostbite
Frostnip and frostbite occur when skin and other tissues freeze and die because blood and oxygen can no longer circulate. Frostnip and frostbite can affect any area of exposed skin, such as the cheeks, ears, nose, hands and feet. Of particular concern is the prolonged exposure of extremities, such as fingers and toes, to extreme cold.
Symptoms of frostnip
- red and cold skin; skin may start to turn white, but is still soft
- prickling and numbness
- tingling and stinging
First aid for frostnip
If you suspect frostnip, get out of the cold, wind, rain or snow and:
- remove tight jewelry or clothing.
- place cold fingers in your armpits, or warm a cold nose or cheek with the palm of your warm hand.
- do not rub or massage the area
Frostbite can permanently damage body tissues and severe cases can lead to amputation.
Warning signs of frostbite
- skin appearing white or grayish-yellow and feeling cold to the touch
- skin feeling unusually firm or waxy
- pins and needles, followed by numbness
How to treat frostbite
Frostbite requires medical attention. While waiting for medical help:
- Find warm shelter and remove wet clothes.
- If you can get out of the cold until medical attention is available, you can begin to warm the affected area. If warm shelter is not available and there is a possibility that skin will refreeze, do not try to warm frostbitten skin. You can rewarm by:
- immersing the affected area in warm but not hot water (the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body), or
- warming the affected area using body heat. For example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers
- Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it. This can cause more damage.
- Do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes, if possible.
- Do not use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming. Since frostbite makes an area numb, you could burn it.
A person with frostbite may also have hypothermia. Get immediate emergency medical help if you suspect hypothermia.
Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature drops below 35 °C. At first, hypothermia causes shivering, confusion, and stumbling. With longer exposure, hypothermia can have severe consequences including organ failure and death.
Warning signs of hypothermia for adults
- loss of muscular control (e.g., difficulty in walking)
- memory loss, slurred speech
- difficulty speaking and drowsiness
Warning signs of hypothermia for children
- bright red, cold skin
- very little energy
How to treat hypothermia
Hypothermia is a serious medical condition. If you suspect that someone has hypothermia, seek medical attention immediately.
While waiting for medical help:
- Find a warm room or shelter.
- Keep muscles moving.
- Remove wet clothing. Replace wet things with warm, dry clothes
- Wrap the individual in blankets/dry clothing or reheat the body through skin-to-skin contact with another person.
- Drink warm, sweet liquids.
- Don’t fight shivering, this is one of the ways your body increases its core temperature.
- If a person is unconscious lay them down and avoid shaking them or handling them roughly.