Extreme cold

What is it, and who’s most affected by it?

Extreme cold

What is it, and who’s most affected by it?

Extreme cold

Temperatures lower than historical averages that create a dangerous environment for people, animals, and critical infrastructure

Winter snow and ice storms

Snow and ice accumulations that result in power failures, dangerous travel, and fall injuries

Wind chill

What the air temperature feels like due to the combination of cold temperatures and winds blowing on exposed skin

The winter months can bring a host of hazards, including snow, ice, high winds, and cold temperatures.

“The very young and the very old are most at risk when the temperature drops, but anyone can be affected by the cold,” said David Terca, MD, emergency medicine assistant chief for Kaiser Permanente in Northern California.

The most common cold-related problems are frostbite and hypothermia, which can develop quickly, depending on the conditions.

Cold weather is more than a nuisance; it can be life- and limb-threatening if you’re not properly prepared.

“One of the classic symptoms of someone developing life-threatening hypothermia is that they lose the ability to think clearly,” Dr. Terca explained. “Being aware of that and getting immediate help can be lifesaving.”

Knowing the dangers of cold weather and being prepared before a storm hits or the temperatures drop is vital to keeping yourself and your loved ones safe.

“Cold weather is more than a nuisance; it can be life- and limb-threatening if you’re not properly prepared,” Dr. Terca said.

Prevent and recognize cold weather health hazards

Hypothermia
Hypothermia is when your body temperature drops to less than 95 degrees. Hypothermia can quickly become life-threatening.

Symptoms: Uncontrollable shivering, numbness, glassy stare, disorientation, weakness, slurred speech, drowsiness, loss of consciousness

If someone’s body temperature drops below 95 degrees, seek medical attention immediately. If that’s not possible, put the person into dry clothing and warm them slowly, starting with the center of the body. Don’t warm the person too quickly — for example, don’t immerse the person in warm water.

Frostbite
Frostbite is skin damage caused by extreme cold. A wind chill factor of minus 20 will cause frostbite in just 30 minutes.

Symptoms: Loss of feeling in affected areas (such as fingers, toes, ears, and nose), skin that is cold to the touch and looks waxy, white, or gray

If you notice symptoms, move to a warm place. Gently rewarm the affected area — never rub. Get medical help as soon as possible.

Cardiac events
Cold weather narrows blood vessels. Shoveling snow can trigger heart attacks in some people due to the combination of heavy exercise, constricted blood vessels, and increased strain on the heart.

How to prevent: Limit your time outside. If you must go outside, dress warmly. Avoid heavy exercise, such as shoveling snow, which might stress your heart.

Breathing issues
Cold air can irritate the respiratory system, especially for people with conditions like asthma. Cover your nose and mouth with a scarf or face mask to warm the air before you breathe it in.

Carbon monoxide poisoning
Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas. Cars and many household items produce this gas, including stoves, power generators, lanterns, grills, fireplaces, gas ranges, and furnaces. Breathing in too much carbon monoxide can kill you.

How to prevent: Use a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector in your home — or a detector that plugs in and has a battery backup. Change the batteries regularly. Never use a portable camp stove or any kind of gas range or oven for heating. Never use a generator inside your home. Generators should be located at least 20 feet from any window, door, or house vent. If you’re stranded in your car during extreme cold, make sure the car’s exhaust pipe isn’t clogged or covered with snow or ice.

Fall injuries
Ice and snow can be slippery, increasing your risk of falling. Cold weather slips and falls can result in sprains, strains, and broken bones.

How to prevent: Wear shoes or boots with gripping soles. Avoid slippery surfaces and use handrails when possible. Use ice-melting products to keep your walkways safe.

Cold, flu, RSV, COVID-19
When it’s cold, you may spend more time indoors with other people. That means respiratory illnesses such as colds, the flu, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), and COVID-19 can spread more easily.

How to prevent: Get vaccinated, cover your cough, and wash your hands often. Consider wearing a well-fitting N95 mask in crowded places.

Are you or a family member at a higher risk?

Protect yourself and your family

Dress for the cold Wear layers of loose-fitting clothing. Layering provides better insulation. Outerwear should be tightly woven, water-repellent, and hooded. Wear a hat. You can lose 40% of your body heat from your head. Cover your mouth to protect your lungs from extreme cold.
Have emergency supplies on hand Before a winter storm hits, put together a stay-at-home kit with 2 weeks of supplies. Include food that doesn’t need refrigeration, water, warm clothing, and medications.
Stay warm in your home Prepare your home ahead of time to keep out the cold with insulation, caulking, and weather stripping.
Monitor conditions Track the latest recommendations from your local emergency and weather authorities to determine the current threat to your community. You can also use an emergency radio to get up-to-date weather information and alerts from your local NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) station.
Traveling? Prepare for the worst Pack a survival kit to keep in your car. It should include:
  • Blankets
  • Warm gloves
  • Hats
  • Boots
  • Rain gear and other clothes
  • Water
  • A snow shovel
  • A flashlight with extra batteries
  • High-energy snacks
You should also have a piece of cardboard or carpet to add traction to your tires in case your car gets stuck in the snow. Bring your mobile phone and make sure the battery is charged. Tell others your travel route and when you should arrive.

Find resources