Decreasing temperatures can put everyone at risk for cold-related illness or injury, such as frostbite and hypothermia.
Health risks are greatest for those who are marginally housed or homeless, outdoor workers and sports enthusiasts, older adults, infants and children, and persons with pre-existing medical conditions such as heart or lung disease.
To reduce your risk, avoid exposure to the cold by covering exposed skin with a hat, gloves, scarf, and take regular breaks from the cold, in warm locations whenever possible.
Indoor safety during cold temperatures
- Check to see that the smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are working. Keep a multi-purpose, dry-chemical fire extinguisher at home.
- Use a fireplace, wood stove, or other fuel powered heater only 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 a kerosene heater is used, make sure that there is enough ventilation indoors. And do not substitute the type of fuel your heater is to use.
- Place a space heater at least 3 feet or more away from anything that may catch fire (such as drapes, furniture, or bedding). Never cover a space heater, place it on top of furniture, or near water. Do not run the cord under carpets or rugs.
- Do not use extension cords to plug in your space heater. This may create a fire hazard.
- 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, where fumes could ignite.
- Use battery-powered flashlights or lanterns instead of candles.
Keep a potable water supply
- 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 ruptured, 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.
- Drinking alcoholic or caffeinated fluids cause your body to lose heat more rapidly. Instead, drink warm fluids or broth to help maintain your body temperature.
- If you have any special dietary needs, check with your health care provider.
- Plan ahead and be prepared – listen to public weather alerts or travel advisories.
- Consider shorting outdoor play for children when temperatures are between -20°C to -25°C (with or without wind chill) and keep children indoors if temperatures reach or drop below -27°C (with or without wind chill). More advice about winter safety for your children can be found at Caring for Kids, developed by the Canadian Paediatric Society.
- Dress warmly and cover exposed skin. Frost bite can occur in as little as 30 seconds.
- Wear several layers of loose fitting clothing made of wool, silk, or polypropylene (these materials retain more heat than cotton).
- Stay dry, west clothing chills the body rapidly. Excess sweating will also increase heat loss. Therefore when you feel too warm, remove some of the extra layers of clothing.
- Keep moving. Limit time sitting – stand up and move around.
- Take shelter from the wind – this will reduce wind chill exposure.
- Drink warm fluids – but NOT caffeinated or fluids containing alcohol as they cause your body to lose heat more rapidly.
- Be aware of the signs for frostbite and hypothermia.
- Avoid travelling on ice-covered roads, overpasses and bridges, or when visibility is poor.
- Take a mobile phone with you and let someone know where you are going and when you expect to arrive.
- Have a winter emergency kit in your car before you leave and bring warm clothing.
- Never pour water on your windshield to remove ice or snow; shattering may occur.
- Do not relay on a car to provide sufficient heat; the car may bread down.
Health conditions and symptoms
- Only the skin freezes. Your skin appears yellow or white.
- You may feel a painful tingling or burning.
- Do not rub the area or use direct heat on the area.
- Warm the area slowly using a warm hand or warm heat.
- Can lead to serious harm that affects your hands, legs, and fingers.
- Contact your health care provider immediately when your skin becomes pale grey or waxy, there is swelling and blistering, and if you feel numbness or pain.
- Do not rub or massage the area.
- Warm up the area slowly with warm compresses or use your own body to re-warm the area (e.g. use underarms to warm a hand).
- Try not to walk on frostbitten toes or feet.
- Your body temperature becomes less than 35°C.
- Contact your health care provider immediately when your skin becomes pale (or becomes reddish for infants); or when you are shivering, confused, have difficulty walking, talking and/or become weak. Symptoms may be subtle in older persons.
- Gently remove wet clothing or get the person to a warm place.
- Use several blankets to warm the person slowly.
- If the person is alert, give warm beverages (NOT alcohol).
- Asthma may be triggered because there is an increased chance for respiratory infections during the winter season. The air is colder and dryer too.
- Stop the spread of germs by washing your hands.
- Wear a scarf loosely over your mouth and nose. Breathe through your nose when outdoors (this helps warm and humidify the air you breathe in).
- Keep your inhaler close by and in a warm place and use your medication consistently.
For more information about cold and its impact on your health visit smdhu.org/extremecold.
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