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Healthy Environments

Cold Weather

Cold weather is common in the Simcoe Muskoka region. Exposure to cold weather can cause serious and sometimes life-threatening health problems. Cold-related adverse health outcomes are preventable. You can protect yourself and those you care about by understanding how cold weather affects your health and by taking appropriate actions to reduce the risk.

The role of the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU) is to provide information about the health impacts of extreme cold weather and offer strategies people can take to protect themselves and others from the cold. One component of this is the Cold Warning and Information System used to monitor and notify community partners and the public of extreme cold warnings and enhanced cold notifications at -15ºC (-20ºC wind chill).

Information on this page will help you understand the risks of cold weather and how you can protect yourself and those you care about from the cold.

Everyone's health can be affected by extreme cold and cold weather conditions. However, some people are at a higher risk of experiencing cold-related health impacts. Risk is influenced by many overlapping factors including the weather, housing conditions, age, health status, behaviours/activities, clothing, and access to adequate resources. Those who may be more susceptible include:

  • Infants and children
  • Older adults
  • People with pre-existing medical conditions and people taking certain medications (e.g. beta-blockers)
  • People who lack adequate shelter (e.g. people experiencing homelessness or those living in homes that are poorly insulated or with no heat/power)
  • Newcomers to Canada
  • Outdoor workers
  • Sports/outdoor enthusiasts

Health Impacts of Cold Temperatures: Conditions and Symptoms

Cold temperatures can result in cold-related conditions and injuries, such as hyperthermia, frostbite, and frostnip. If you suspect hyperthermia or frostbite, seek medical attention immediately. More information about these cold-related health impacts can be found below.

Cold temperatures can also aggravate respiratory illnesses such as asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema, and worsen cardiovascular illnesses leading to heart attacks or strokes. Worsened health conditions can occur up to several days after being exposed to cold temperatures. If you have an existing heart or lung condition, speak with your healthcare provider about ways to protect your health during cold temperatures. Immediately call 911 if you think you or someone else is, or could be, having a heart attack, stroke, or experiencing another medical emergency.

For information on cold-related emergency room visits in Simcoe Muskoka, visit our HealthSTATS webpage.

Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can generate it, leading to a core body temperature that is too low (less than 35ºC) for regular functioning of the body. Hypothermia affects brain and muscle functions, making it difficult for a person to think clearly or move well.

Signs and symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • Shivering (in later stages of hypothermia, shivering can decrease or stop)
  • Pale skin (in later stages, skin can turn bluish)
  • Confusion (e.g. difficulty thinking, poor judgement, and memory loss)
  • Difficulty speaking (e.g. slurred, mumbled speech)
  • Difficulty moving (e.g. stumbling or uncoordinated movements and fumbling objects)
  • Drowsiness or exhaustion

Symptoms may be more subtle in older adults. For infants, look for cold reddish skin and low energy. 

If you suspect that someone has hypothermia, seek medical attention immediately. Move the person to a warm location. Remove wet clothes and change into dry clothes if possible. Cover the person with several layers of blankets to warm them slowly. If the person is alert, offer them a warm drink (non-alcoholic and non-caffeinated). If the person is unconscious, lay them down and avoid shaking or handling them roughly.

Frostbite is a skin injury, caused by freezing. Frostbite occurs when skin is exposed or not properly covered or protected from cold temperatures and wind chill. The most common body parts to get frostbite include the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes. Frostbite can permanently damage body tissues, and in severe cases, lead to amputations. Once a part of the body has had frostbite, it is more likely to happen again.

Signs and symptoms of frostbite include:

  • Skin appears white or grayish-yellow in colour
  • Skin feels unusually firm or waxy and cold to the touch
  • Pins and needles feeling, followed by numbness
  • Blisters, in severe cases

If you suspect that you or someone else has frostbite, move to a warm location and remove wet clothes. If a warm shelter is not available and there is a possibility that skin will refreeze, do not try to warm frostbitten skin. Gently warm up the affected areas using body heat (e.g. put fingers in your armpits or place a warm hand over your nose or cheeks). Do not rub or massage the affected areas. This can cause more damage. Do not apply direct heat such as 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 your skin. Avoid walking on frostbitten toes or feet.

Seek medical attention if the skin is pale gray or waxy, there is swelling or blistering, or if there is pain. Medical help should also be sought if the normal skin colour or sensation does not return quickly.

Frostnip is a cold weather injury that occurs when skin is exposed or not properly protected from cold temperatures and wind. It happens before frostbite begins. Frostnip can progress into frostbite if cold exposure is prolonged. Recognizing frostnip is important, so that actions can be taken to prevent frostbite.

Signs and symptoms of frostnip include:

  • Skin appears red (it may start to turn white)
  • Skin may sting, prickly, or burn (in later stages, skin may feel tingly or numb)
  • Skin will feel soft (not firm or waxy)

If you suspect you or someone else has frostnip, move to a warm location and slowly warm the affected area. Put on warm, dry clothes. Rewarm the skin using body heat, or warm (not hot) water. Do not rub or massage the affected areas. This can cause more damage. Do not apply direct heat, such as a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming; this will help to avoid burning the skin. It is common to feel tingling or burning as the skin rewarms. If blisters form after cold exposure, this may indicate frostbite. If this occurs, seek medical attention.

How to stay warm and safe?

Cold-related injuries are preventable. You can protect yourself and those you care about from the cold by following these prevention and protection measures:

Be aware:

  • Know the weather conditions before going outside. Check the forecast, weather alerts, and travel advisories.
  • Consider shortening outdoor play for children when temperatures are between -20ºC to -25ºC (with or without wind chill) and keep children indoors if temperatures reach or drop below -27ºC (with or without wind chill). More advice about winter safety for your children can be found at Caring for Kids, developed by the Canada Paediatric Society.
  • Always be alert for signs of hypothermia, frostbite, and frostnip. If you experience these symptoms when exposed to the cold, move indoors, get warm, and seek medical attention:
  • Respiratory: shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing
  • Cardiovascular: chest pain and arrhythmia
  • Circulation: colour change of finger and toes, pain, numbness, and tickling sensation in extremities
  • Muscle: pain, stiffness, swelling, restricted movement, weakness
  • Skin: itching, pale

Cover up:

  • Dress warmly and cover exposed skin (exposed skin can become frostbitten in as little as 30 seconds in extreme cold).
  • Wear a hat, gloves/mittens, and a neck warmer or scarf to prevent heat loss, and protect the fingers, chin, lips, nose, and cheeks.
  • Wear waterproof winter boots and warm socks (e.g. wool socks).
  • Dress in layers to include an:
  • Inner layer: clothing should have 'wicking' properties to remove moisture (sweat) from the skin;
  • Middle layer: should be warm, insulating layer (e.g. sweater) to keep you warm and prevent heat loss; and
  • Outer layer: should be wind-resistant to prevent cold air from getting inside the layers.
  • Wear sunglasses, lip balm, and sunscreen to protect your skin from ultraviolet radiation (UV rays) causing sun burns, and skin and eye damage. See Health Canada's sun protection through the seasons for more information.
  • Wear a face mask and googles if you are participating in winter activities such as skiing, snowmobiling, and skating to protect your face from frostbite and windburn.
  • Stay dry, since wet clothing chills the body rapidly.
  • If you start to sweat or are getting too warm, try to cool off (e.g. resting, removing some extra layers of clothing). Excess sweat can increase heat loss.
  • If your clothes get wet, change into dry clothes as soon as possible.

Warm up:

  • Drink warm fluids (e.g. non-caffeinated tea, water, milk). Avoid caffeinated or alcoholic beverages as they can cause your body to lose heat more quickly.
  • Take shelter from the wind to reduce wind chill exposure.
  • Keep moving and limit time spent standing or sitting. Moving will keep your blood flowing and maintain your body heat.
  • Warm up by taking regular breaks in a heated building.

Take care:

  • Check in on neighbours, friends, and family (e.g. call, videocall, text) who may be at risk during extreme cold weather events.
  • Frequently check in with children and ensure they remain properly dressed.
  • Notify friends and family of your location when going on outdoor activities, such as hiking and skiing.

Travel safety:

  • Avoid travelling on ice-covered roads, overpasses and bridges, or when visibility is poor.
  • Have a winter emergency car kit before you leave and bring warm clothing.
  • Never pour water on your windshield to remove ice or snow; shattering may occur.
  • Do not rely on a car to provide sufficient heat; the car may break down.

Cold weather events and other emergency events can occur simultaneously (e.g. extreme winter storms and power outages), which can pose indoor health and safety concerns if people are not cautious. For example, during cold weather events and power outages, people sometimes heat their homes using space heaters, fires and other appliances that may burn fuel. If these strategies are used incorrectly or without caution, they can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning or fires. You can take steps to plan ahead and be prepared to keep you and those you care about safe indoors during cold weather events.

Prepare your home:

  • Conduct regular maintenance. Make sure your heating system is working properly. Seal cracks and drafts to keep heat in.
  • Prepare for the possibility or power outages including an emergency kit.
  • Check to see that the smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are working.
  • Keep a multi-purpose, dry-chemical fire extinguisher at home and learn how to inspect your extinguisher by reading your operator's manual.

Heat your home safely:

If you plan to use fireplaces or space heaters to keep your home warm, the risk of household fires and carbon monoxide poisoning and poor indoor air quality can increase. Follow these safety tips:

  • Only use a fireplace, wood stove, or other fuel powered heaters if they are properly vented to the outside and have been certified by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) or Underwriters Laboratories of Canada (ULC).
  • If you are using a space heater, place it on a sturdy, hard surface and keep it away (at least 1 metre) from anything flammable (e.g. drapes, clothing, bedding, rugs, paper). Be sure to turn the space heater off before leaving the room, house, or going to bed. Never cover a space heater, never place it on top of furniture, nor close to water, and do not run the cord under carpets or rugs. Also, do not use extension cords to plug in your space heater, as this may create a fire hazard.
  • If a kerosene heater is used, make sure that there is enough ventilation indoors. Do not substitute the type of fuel your heater is meant to use.
  • To reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, never use a camp stove, charcoal or gas grill inside the home, garage, or near air intakes of your home.
  • Do not use a wet generator or heater, this will increase your risk of electrocution. 
  • Do not store fuel indoors, fumes could ignite.

Other indoor safety considerations:

  • Keep the indoor temperatures warm to prevent water pipes from freezing or rupturing. 
  • Improve the circulation of heated air around water pipes by opening your kitchen cabinet doors beneath the kitchen sink or insulate any water lines that run along outer walls.
  • Do not use a torch to thaw frozen pipes. Instead, thaw the pipes slowly by using an electric hair dryer. If you cannot thaw your pipes or the pipes rupture, use an alternative source of water, such as bottled water.

Eat and drink wisely:

  • Eating well-balanced meals will help you and your family stay warm.
  • Drink warm fluids or broth to help maintain your body temperature. Avoid drinking alcoholic or caffeinated fluids, which can cause your body to lose heat more rapidly.
  • If you have any special dietary needs, check with your healthcare provider.

Extreme Cold Temperature Response Plan

Extreme cold is an important public health issue. In an effort to monitor illness and assist with planning for extreme cold events, SMDHU has developed a cold notification process to create awareness and education regarding the risks of extreme cold exposure.

SMDHU provides guidance and consultation to our municipalities, key community stakeholders, and the general public on appropriate response strategies for extreme cold events. SMDHU monitors forecasts from December 1 to March 31. SMDHU follows two cold notification processes.

Increases awareness of decreasing temperatures and potential health risks when temperatures are forecasted to reach -15ºC (or -20ºC wind chill) for a minimum of 2 hours within a 24-hour period. This temperature reflects a review of local cold-weather emergency room visit data.

When temperatures reach the extreme cold warning criteria, a cold warning will be issued by Environment and Climate Change Canada for Simcoe, Muskoka, or both.  SMDHU will activate the extreme cold warning notification response system to communicate the warning to municipalities, community partners, and the public.  Extreme cold warning criteria:

  • Simcoe County and the Cities of Barrie and Orillia: temperatures or wind chill of -30ºC for at least 2 hours within a 24-hour period.
  • District of Muskoka: temperatures or wind chill of -35ºC for at least 2 hours within a 24-hour period.
You can follow SMDHU on InstagramFacebook, or Twitter to receive extreme cold communications. You can also monitor ECCC weather alerts.

Climate Health Connection

Our climate is changing and these changes are affecting human health and well-being in Simcoe Muskoka. Climate change is already impacting winter temperatures and changing patterns of illness and injury related to extreme cold.

Average winter temperatures in Simcoe Muskoka are increasing due to climate change. However, Simcoe Muskoka will continue to experience extreme cold events. Extreme cold events may lead to more significant health impacts, including cold-related illness and death. This is because individuals may be less used to cold weather and so when extreme cold events do happen (even if they are less severe than in the past), the health impacts could be greater. 

SMDHU is engaged in a number of strategies to help our community mitigate and adapt to the changing climate-health risks associated with cold weather. This includes extreme cold monitoring and notification, surveillance, increasing awareness, and encouraging prevention measures, promoting healthy built environments, and working with community and healthcare partners.

Individuals and households can take small actions to create a big impact. Home improvements (small and large) that better insulate against the cold can reduce the amount of greenhouse gases required to heat your home (e.g. electricity or burning other fuels). Being prepared for emergencies and knowledge on how to identify and respond to health impacts or extreme cold are ways you can adapt to changes in cold weather.

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