Follow these tips to keep you and your family warm and well in extremely cold weather.
To keep warm and well during periods of cold weather:
- Keep curtains drawn and doors closed to block out draughts. Try to block any draughts under doors. But, DO NOT block up essential vents.
- Have regular hot drinks and at least one hot meal a day if possible. Eating regularly helps keep energy levels up during winter.
- Wear several light layers of warm clothes (rather than one chunky layer).
- Keep as active as possible.
- Wrap up warm if you need to go outside on cold days.
Keep your main living room at around 18- 21°C (64-70°F), and the rest of the house at least 16°C (61°F). If you can’t heat all the rooms you use, heat the living room during the day and the bedroom just before you go to sleep.
Icy pavements and roads can very slippery. Take extra care if you go out and wear boots or shoes with good grip on the soles. The Met Office advises putting grit or cat litter on paths and driveways to lessen the risk of slipping. It adds that you should wait until the roads have been gritted if you're travelling by car. The Highways Agency offers useful advice on travelling in snow and freezing conditions.
Bear in mind that black ice on pavements or roads might not be clearly visible, and that compacted snow may turn to ice and become slippery.
The Met Office provide the weather forecasts for broadcasts on radio and TV, so listen in to these bulletins regularly to keep up to date with the weather. Severe weather warnings are also issued on the Met Office website www.metoffice.gov.uk, or you can ring the customer centre on 0870 900 0100
Check the Met Office weather forecast.
Look out for others
Check up on friends, relatives and neighbours who may be more vulnerable to cold weather. Cold weather is especially dangerous for older people or people with serious illnesses, so check up on them if you can. Read how to spot and treat hypothermia.
People with heart or respiratory (breathing) problems may have worse symptoms during a cold spell and for several days after temperatures return to normal.
You can find more information and advice on staying healthy in periods of cold weather in Winter health.
Hypothermia occurs when a person's normal body temperature of around 37°C (98.6°F) drops below 35°C (95°F).
It is usually caused by being in a cold environment. It can be triggered by a combination of things, including prolonged exposure to cold (such as staying outdoors in cold conditions or in a poorly heated room for a long time), rain, wind, sweat, inactivity or being in cold water.
Types of hypothermia
There are different types of hypothermia, which depend on how quickly the body loses heat.
- Acute or immersion hypothermia occurs when a person loses heat very rapidly, for example by falling into cold water.
- Exhaustion hypothermia occurs when a persons body is so tired it can no longer generate heat.
- Chronic hypothermia is when heat loss occurs slowly over time. This is common in elderly people living in a poorly heated house, or in people sleeping rough.
When your body gets cold, the normal response is to warm up by becoming more active, putting on more layers or moving indoors. But if exposure to the cold continues, your body's automatic defence system will try to prevent any further heat loss by:
- Shivering (which keeps the major organs at normal temperature),
- Restricting blood flow to the skin, and
- Releasing hormones to generate heat.
After prolonged exposure to the cold, these responses are not enough to maintain body temperature, as they also drain energy.
When the body’s energy is exhausted, it slowly starts to shut down. Shivering stops and your heartbeat begins to slow. This life-threatening stage can develop very quickly, so it is vital that hypothermia is treated as a medical emergency.
Each year in the UK, hypothermia is the main contributing factor to the deaths of more than 400 people over the age of 65.
Who is most at risk?
Elderly people and those who are ill or have a long term illness and unable to move around easily are especially vulnerable to hypothermia. This can be due to poorly heated accommodation, not eating enough or not being active enough to generate energy.
People who spend a lot of time in extreme weather conditions, such as climbers and skiers, are at a higher risk, especially if they are not wearing suitable clothing.
Babies are also more prone to hypothermia because their body's ability to regulate its temperature is not fully developed. They lose heat quickly if left in a cold room for too long.
If you are treating someone with mild hypothermia at home, or waiting for medical treatment to arrive, follow the advice below to prevent further loss of heat.
Things to do for hypothermia:
- Move the person indoors, or somewhere warm, as soon as possible.
- Once sheltered, gently remove any wet clothing and dry the person.
- Wrap them in blankets, towels, coats (whatever you have), protecting the head and torso first.
- Your own body heat can help someone with hypothermia. Hug them gently.
- Increase activity if possible, but not to the point where sweating occurs, as that cools the skin down again.
- If possible, give the person warm drinks (but not alcohol) or high energy foods, such as chocolate, to help warm them up.
- Once body temperature has increased, keep the person warm and dry.
It is important to handle anyone that has hypothermia very gently and carefully.
Things you should NOT do:
- Don't warm up an elderly person using a bath, as this may send cold blood from the body's surfaces to the heart or brain too suddenly, causing a stroke or heart attack.
- Don't apply direct heat (hot water or a heating pad, for example) to the arms and legs, as this forces cold blood back to the major organs, making the condition worse.
- Don't give the person alcohol to drink, as this will decrease the body's ability to retain heat.
- Don't rub or massage the person’s skin, as this can cause the blood vessels to widen and decrease the body’s ability to retain heat. In severe cases of hypothermia there is also a risk of heart attack.
Severe hypothermia needs urgent medical treatment in hospital. Shivering is a good guide to how severe the hypothermia is. If the person can stop shivering of their own accord, hypothermia is mild, but if they cannot stop shivering, it is moderate to severe.
As the body temperature decreases further, shivering will stop completely. The heart rate will slow and a person will gradually lose consciousness. When unconscious, a person will not appear to have a pulse or be breathing. Emergency assistance should be sought immediately and CPR provided while the person is warmed. CPR is an emergency procedure, consisting of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and chest compression.Medical treatment warms up the body from the inside. Doctors do this by giving warm fluids intravenously (through a vein). In very rare and severe cases, haemodialysis or cardiopulmonary bypass may be used. This is a treatment to take blood out of the body, warm it up, and return it. The blood is filtered through an artificial kidney, much like dialysis treatment for people with kidney failure.