Health services must prepare for extremely cold weather

Extremely cold weather increases mortality and poses a high health risk to many, particularly children and elderly, homeless or intoxicated people. The current cold-weather spell across several countries in the WHO European Region is a challenge for health and social services. Health services and hospitals must care for an increasing number of patients suffering from exposure to the cold, hypothermia, frostbite, injuries and accidents, as well as respiratory infections and cardiovascular incidents.

Exposure to extremely low temperature is followed by an increase in coronary heart disease mortality after 1–3 days, cerebral vascular accidents after 3–4 days and respiratory diseases after more than 5 days. Cardiovascular conditions account for 50–70% of excess mortality in winter, and respiratory diseases, 15–33%.

According to media reports, more than 110 people so far have died from the health effects of the extremely cold weather in some of the countries in the WHO European Region.

Health-sector preparedness

The health sector needs to prepare for cold spells and winter health problems, to prevent and mitigate the adverse health effects of cold temperatures. It should:

  • have effective early warning and alert systems;
  • be able to take measures to reduce exposure to cold, and provide medical treatment and care for vulnerable population groups;
  • conduct monitoring and surveillance of health effects; and
  • evaluate the preparedness of health facilities and services.

Public-health preparedness for winter and cold-waves substantially reduces hospital admissions. Preparedness plans should be implemented in coordination with other sectors – such as housing, energy, transport and education – and be integrated into countries’ overall emergency plans.

High-risk groups

Children and elderly, homeless or intoxicated people – along with those with certain health problems and chronic diseases, or taking certain medications – are among the most vulnerable in winter and during particularly cold weather.

Vulnerability to exposure to the cold is strongly affected by wider determinants such as housing, energy supply and the economic and social circumstances of individuals and families. 

Support from WHO

WHO supports national authorities in developing and revising cold-weather plans through expert advice, technical support and guidance documents.

WHO/Europe has developed an emergency-response checklist in English and Russian that outlines essential generic preparedness measures for hospitals. The checklist enables hospitals to cope with increased demands during emergencies, including cold-weather spells.