Emergency Preparedness and Response

Extreme Cold

The changing climate means that extreme weather is increasing in intensity and frequency, and for some places, that means an increased risk of extreme cold and winter weather. The winter storms of February 2021 that affected millions of people, resulting in power outages, boil water advisories, and deaths in Texas is but one example of these kinds of events and the affect they can have on our health. These impacts can be especially acute in geographies that aren’t used to regular extremely cold temperatures.

“Keep It Thermally Controlled” is one of the Principles of a Healthy Home promoted by the National Center for Healthy Housing; tenants and homeowners are at risk for various health problems related to prolonged exposure to excessive heat or cold when their homes do not maintain adequate temperatures. These issues disproportionately affect low-income communities and families who may lack the resources to pay for safe heating in their homes, especially during emergency situations. Supporting the availability of resources, services, programs, and policies that improve thermal control in homes and ensure that homes are able to protect their residents during extreme cold conditions is a healthy homes issue.

Definition

Thresholds for extreme cold differ greatly by location and baseline standards for cold. What constitutes extreme cold in the north may be vastly different from extreme cold in places that are more conditioned to warmer weather. Different populations will also have different tolerances and sensitivities to cold temperatures. Extremely cold temperatures and related winter weather events can last for a few hours or multiple days.

Associated Risks

Excessively cold temperatures are often accompanied by winter storms and other extreme weather conditions; these related weather events can sometimes render heating systems inadequate or cause power failures. As a result, households may turn to using space heaters, fireplaces, or appliances that aren’t meant for heating (such as ovens or stoves) for warmth––increasing the risk of fires and negatively impacting indoor air quality.

If you are also using a portable generator to power your home during extreme winter weather, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), encourages running the generator outside of the home, in well-ventilated areas, and away from all doors, windows, and vents to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Extreme Cold Prevention Guide
This guide, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), provides a comprehensive overview of preparation, safety, and first aid information for extremely cold weather events. [pdf; CDC]

Resource Library Table of Contents

Adverse Health Effects and Susceptible Populations
Two main health issues that can arise as a direct result of exposure to cold weather are hypothermia and frostbite. Resources included in this section cover the different ways of preventing and identifying these health hazards.

Extreme cold conditions have differing impacts on people depending on their age, access to shelter, and health. These differences can also impact the kinds of intervention that are appropriate. This section includes information and resources for extreme cold impacts on each population group listed.

  • Infants and young children
  • Older adults
  • People experiencing homelessness
  • Individuals with Heart Disease or high blood pressure
  • Individuals with respiratory conditions

Prepare and Act
It’s important to prepare for extreme cold and to also remain safe during cold weather. This section provides information on what to do before and during cold weather events.

Policy Levers and Actions
There are several policy levers and programs that can and should be utilized to ensure that homes are able to protect residents against extreme cold temperatures. This page collects measures that can be implemented by policymakers, advocates, and community leaders to improve thermal control in homes, raise the standards that guide housing to protect against extreme cold, and provide community services. These policies are especially important to provide support for low-income communities and families.

 

Latest page update: May 18, 2022.