Emergency Preparedness and Response: Extreme Cold

Adverse Health Effects and Susceptible Populations

Adverse Health Effects

Exposure to cold weather results in two main health issues—hypothermia and frostbite—and can also cause health risks for those with chronic conditions. In addition, certain susceptible populations are also at increased risk of the health impacts of prolonged exposure to extreme cold.

Hypothermia is caused by exposure to extremely cold temperatures for a significant period and is characterized by abnormally low body temperature. Hypothermia can impair brain function and one’s ability to think clearly; people often do not realize they are experiencing hypothermia at all. It’s important to recognize the signs of hypothermia, especially because adults and infants exhibit different symptoms. Adults may shiver, feel very tired, fumble hands, slur speech, and experience confusion. In contrast, babies will have bright red, cold skin and low energy. Hypothermia is a medical emergency.

Frostbite is defined as a bodily injury caused by freezing, often seen in parts of the body that receive less circulation, such as the nose, ears, fingers, chin, cheeks, and toes. People with poor circulation or who are not dressed appropriately for extreme cold conditions are at greater risk. Signs of frostbite are white or grayish-yellow skin, firm or waxy skin, and feelings of numbness.

Cold weather and increased outdoor activity places additional strain on the heart. This can increase the risk of heart attack, especially for those who have pre-existing cardiovascular conditions such as coronary heart disease and high blood pressure.

Resources included in this section cover the different ways of preventing and identifying these health hazards.

Prevent Hypothermia and Frostbite
This page on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website provides additional information about hypothermia and ways to intervene, as well as what to do if someone is exhibiting signs of frostbite. [url; CDC, 2019]

Avoid. Spot. Treat. Frostbite and Hypothermia
This infographic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) summarizes the recommendations and guidelines on preventing, identifying, and addressing instances of frostbite and hypothermia. The infographic also explains what to avoid when frostbite or hypothermia is suspected. [pdf; CDC]

Tips to Manage Heart Health in Cold
For individuals with heart disease or high blood pressure.
This webpage provides an overview of these health risks and also provides suggestions for staying safe. [url; Northwestern Medicine]

Cold Air and Asthma = Winter Asthma
For individuals with respiratory conditions.
Cold weather is an asthma trigger, because changes in temperature and breaking in cold or dry air can inflame airways. This page includes an explanation of how cold weather triggers asthma and how you can handle asthma in the winter. It’s important to note that, if you’re spending more time indoors, you should take steps to keep your indoor air clean and your home dry. [url; Asthma and Allergy Network]

[Esp] Prevenga la hipotermia y la congelación
Esta página en el sitio web de los Centros para el Control y la Prevención de Enfermedades (CDC) proporciona información adicional sobre la hipotermia y las formas de intervenir, así como qué hacer si alguien muestra signos de congelación. [url; CDC, 2021]

Susceptible Populations

Infants and young children, especially, lose body heat faster than adults due to their smaller body surface area, low fat levels, and inability to produce enough heat from shivering. Older adults experience various age-related changes that make it more difficult for them to maintain body heat in extreme cold.

In addition to the populations described above, low-income individuals and families are frequently at risk of exposure to cold if they are unable to pay utility bills, especially during extreme weather events or times of high demand, and may find themselves having to choose between paying for heating and paying for other needs, like food or healthcare needs. You can read more about policy levers to address this issue on our Policy Levers and Actions page.

Extreme Temperatures: Disaster Management Resources
For infants and young children.
This page on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ website explains how to prepare young children appropriately for extreme cold and what to do if they experience hypothermia or frostbite. [url; AAP]

Cold Weather Safety for Older Adults
For older adults.
This page includes tips to protect older adults in extremely cold weather and information on various age-related conditions that may increase health risks when the weather is extremely cold. [url; NIH]

Cold-Related Injuries
For people experiencing homelessness.
Those who lack access to shelters are especially at risk during extreme cold conditions. This resource list compiled by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council provides information about the various cold-related injuries to which this population is susceptible as well as ways to mitigate these hazards. [url; NHCHC]

5 Ways You can Help Those Experiencing Homelessness this Fall and Winter
For people experiencing homelessness.
These tips offered by the Atlanta Mission are a few of several ways to help people experiencing homelessness during cold weather. Actions include offering various warm clothing items, hot food, and care packages. [url; Atlanta Mission]


Latest page update: May 18, 2022.