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Cold weather

Icicles on a gutter on a cold day

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Health Effects of Cold Weather

Exposure to cold weather can be harmful to health, and potentially deadly. 

During cold weather events, there are increased risks of hypothermia, frostbite and potentially death, particularly for people who are unhoused or insecurely housed. Hypothermia is caused by long exposures to cold temperatures, causing body temperature to drop. Low body temperature can cause confusion and difficulty with moving, and can have severe impacts including organ failure and death. Frostbite occurs when skin freezes and can occur when skin is exposed to freezing temperatures. In severe cases, frostbite may lead to amputation.

Signs and symptoms of hypothermia:

  • Shivering
  • Exhaustion or feeling very tired
  • Confusion
  • Fumbling hands
  • Memory loss
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness
  • Babies with hypothermia may have bright red, cold skin and have very low energy

Signs and symptoms of frostbite:

  • A white or grayish-yellow skin area
  • Skin that feels unusually firm or waxy
  • Numbness 

People at Higher Risk

Populations who are most at risk of developing hypothermia or frostbite include:

  • People who are unhoused or insecurely housed
  • People spending long periods of time outdoors (for example, for work or recreation)
  • Elderly people, infants and young children
  • People with a pre-existing health conditions including diseases of the heart, lungs or  conditions, respiratory illness or health conditions that may impact blood circulation (e.g. diabetes, Raynaud's Phenomenon, or medications that restrict blood vessels)).
  • People who use substances, including alcohol

In addition to these cold-weather health conditions direct effects of hypothermia during cold weather, people with heart problems can experience worsening of these conditions for several days after exposure to cold weather occurs. It is important that anyone with signs and symptoms of cold weather illnesses, such as hypothermia or frostbite, should seek medical attention promptly. 

Take Safety Precautions 

When temperatures drop below freezing, members of the public are encouraged to take precautions:

  • Check the weather report before going outside.
  • Dress in layers, preferably the outer layer windproof, and cover exposed skin.
  • Wear a hat, mittens or gloves, and warm boots.
  • Stay dry. Risk of hypothermia increases when you or your clothes are wet.
  • Choose wool or synthetic fabrics for your clothes instead of cotton, because cotton absorbs and holds moisture, and becomes less effective in keeping the wearer warm.
  • Drink warm fluids other than alcohol.
  • Seek shelter if you normally spend long periods outside. Depending on the wind chill, exposed skin can freeze in minutes.
  • Warm up by taking regular breaks in heated buildings when spending time outside.
  • Consider rescheduling outdoor activities, or limiting time outdoors, during colder temperatures, especially if it is windy.
  • Heat your home to at least 21oC if infants or elderly people are present.
  • Check in on your neighbours, friends and family. Call, text or video chat with them (especially older adults or people with disabilities living alone) to make sure they are keeping warm and not experiencing any difficulties related to the weather.
  • Plan travel routes and keep up-to-date with information on weather and transportation at Drive BC. Use home and vehicle preparedness checklists from BC Emergency Management.  You can also call toll-free 1-800-550-4997 for B.C. road information 24 hours a day.
  • Maintain public spaces, including sidewalks and parking lots, as safe pathways for everyone's mobility.
  • Some communities have Snow Angel programs to assist seniors or people with disabilities to clear snow off walkways. This can decrease injury risk and support people's mobility in the community, and volunteers are always needed!  

Cold Weather Information from Local Governments

Cold weather information specific to local governments in the VCH region, including advice and warming centres in some communities, can be found here:

Cold Weather Daytime and Overnight Shelter options

During cold weather events, local governments and non-governmental organizations in the Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) region operate cold weather shelters, or encourage people to use other public spaces to warm up and avoid exposure to the cold (like libraries and community centres). Some spaces are open overnight and others are available during the day. 

Shelter options may change quickly or based on the current weather conditions. Confirm with organizations directly if services or spaces are currently available. 

Additional shelter lists, which may have more up-to-date information, are found here: 

  • BC Housing Shelter Lists (all shelter types across the province) 
  • BC211 Shelter lists for Metro Vancouver 
  • Homelessness Services Association of BC Emergency Weather Shelters (only Emergency Weather Response shelter information)
  • Many local governments post updated information on their Twitter or Facebook pages about warming centres or temporary shelters activated during cold weather warnings.

Cold Weather Warnings

  • Arctic Outflow Warnings are issued for Coastal British Columbia regions when any combination of wind speed and temperature gives a wind chill of -20°C or lower for 6 hours or more.
  • Extreme Cold Warnings are issued for Coastal British Columbia when temperature or wind chills are expected to reach -35°C for at least two hours.
  • Snowfall Warnings are issued for Southern and Central Coastal British Columbia when 10 centimeters or more of snow falls within 12 hours or less; or when 5 centimeters or more of snow falls within 6 hours or less. 
  • Winter Storm Warnings are issued for when severe and potentially dangerous winter weather conditions are expected, including: a major snowfall (25 centimeters or more within a 24 hour period) and a significant snowfall (snowfall warning criteria amounts) combined with other cold weather precipitation types such as freezing rain, strong winds, blowing snow and/or extreme cold. 

For more information on Public Weather Alerts for British Columbia, visit this page

Vancouver Coastal Health Winter Care

Know where to go for the right care during the busy winter season. 

Information about care options.

Additional Winter Preparation and Safety Resources

  • Emergency Management BC - Includes information on how to make an emergency plan, putting together an emergency kit, checking in on your neighbours, and preparing for a power outage.
  • Drive BC - Plan your route and receive up-to-date weather information
  • Alertable: Public Alerting System - Download the Alertable app on your phone, or visit the website, to stay informed of public alerts released by municipalities 
  • BC Hydro - Includes Power Outage Map, List, Safety Resources for Homes and Businesses 

SOURCE: Cold weather ( )
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