As icy weather grips Europe, WHO offers reminders about measures to reduce health risks from exposure to cold
Recently, much of the WHO European Region has been hit by cold, icy weather. Deaths due to the cold have been reported in several countries. Exposure to cold weather, whether indoors or outside, can cause a range of adverse health effects, from mild symptoms to serious or life-threatening health outcomes. Extremely cold weather increases mortality and poses a high health risk to many, particularly those in vulnerable situations.
Those most vulnerable during cold spells include elderly people, infants, children and teenagers, and people who have chronic diseases or physical or mental limitations. People taking certain medications or those who are malnourished are also at greater risk of negative cold-related health outcomes. Refugees and migrants can also be especially vulnerable.
The economic and social status of individuals and families also plays an important role, as cold weather more severely affects people who are poor, homeless or marginalized. Additionally, certain behaviours – such as the excess use of alcohol, some outdoor leisure activities and wearing inappropriate clothing – can put people at increased risk from cold exposure. For refugees and migrants, the risk increases if they lack proper shelter, clothing, food or medical care.
Although counter-intuitive, the health effects of cold exposure are greater in the Mediterranean and southern countries of the Region than in northern countries, where housing tends to be well heated and people own and are accustomed to wearing warm clothing.
During periods of cold weather, health and social services often face the challenge of caring for an increased number of patients suffering from various cold-related outcomes. Disruptions in services and infrastructure due to cold weather can indirectly aggravate negative health effects. However, knowing the risks and the measures needed to prepare for and respond to cold weather can help prevent these effects. Learn more about how to reduce health risks from exposure to the cold by following the links below.