Every year tens of thousands of people across the UK die from conditions that can be linked to exposure to cold weather. But why? What is it about cold that causes us such problems?
Whatever the weather outside, or inside for that matter, our bodies fight a constant battle to keep internal conditions pretty much the same. We have a range of reflexes that kick in to keep our core temperature steady at around 37.5°C . This is so that our cells and organs are protected from damage.
When we start to get cold, our blood becomes thicker, which can cause clotting. Clotting can cause problems and is one of the reasons we see more heart attacks and strokes in the days following colder weather.
Being cold also affects our body’s ability to fight off infection. This is why in the weeks after the cold weather we see more deaths from infections like pneumonia, as lung conditions and coughs can develop into a more serious problem.
So, although many of us think the health risks of cold are confined to hypothermia, the reality is that many more people will die of heart and lung problems due to cold weather.
What can we do to stay well and warm?
There are lots of things we can do to stay well and warm during winter.
Our top tip is to heat the home, or the parts of it you’re using, to at least 18°C. This is the temperature at which we start to see changes in the body, when the blood starts to thicken. So, temperatures above this are best to protect your health.
Moving around can also help as this keeps the blood flowing around the body which can prevent clotting. If you’ve ever sat still for any prolonged period you’ll know you feel the cold more acutely. If you can’t move around, wiggle your toes and fingers. It may not sound like much but even small measures like this can help keep you warm and well.
Every year millions of pounds are handed out by the Government to people who need support with keeping their home warm. But there is still more which goes unclaimed. Remember that you don’t have to be on other benefits to be eligible for some of these funds – if you are struggling to pay your heating bills, you may be entitled to help. The Keep Warm Keep Well leaflet has information about what financial support is available and how to access it.
Planning ahead and keeping in touch with the weather forecasts can really help. If you know a spell of cold is on the way do what you can to prepare for it. By getting shopping early and fetching prescriptions, your exposure to really cold conditions could be minimised, lessening the chances such weather could make you ill. There is plenty of useful information out there on how to stay well and warm this winter, including the Met Office and NHS websites.
It’s also really important to look out for others. People with heart and lung conditions, those who are over 65 and young children are at risk in cold weather. Those with conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s are also at risk as they may be less aware that they need to change their behaviour to stay warm.
The chances are we’ll all know someone in one of these groups. If you do, and you’re able, pop in, see if they could do with a hand and see if there’s anything you could do to help. Cold weather can also mean that some people are isolated so it may be that a chat and a friendly face is all they need.