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Winter Storms and Intense Cold

Be on Your Guard this Winter!

Winter storms and intense cold can have direct impacts on population health (e.g., frostbite and hypothermia) as well as indirect ones (e.g., aggravation of certain diseases, injury, and carbon monoxide poisoning).

Consult the Decision aid in case of Intense Cold and Exposition des enfants au froid (French) if you are parents or have young children in your charge.  If you are the organizer of an outdoor event in winter, find out how to prevent the health effects of cold weather (French).

Practical Advice

Health Impacts

Cold-Related Risks

Direct Effects

Immediate risks, such as frostbite, can occur after just five to ten minutes of exposure. Body extremities—such as ears, nose, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes—are usually affected. The lesions are similar to those caused by burns.

Prolonged exposure to intense cold can result in significant loss of body heat. Beyond a certain point, the body is unable to compensate for the loss of heat, resulting in a significant loss of body temperature. Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature drops below 35°C. Hypothermia is a medical emergency requiring prompt medical care. Symptoms vary depending on whether the hypothermia is mild, moderate, or severe.

You can learn about the symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia and find out what to do in such situations by referring to the Decision aid in case of Intense Cold.

Indirect Effects

The indirect effects of cold exposure are:

  • Aggravation of certain chronic cardiovascular diseases (e.g., angina, heart attack, stroke)
  • Development of infections (e.g., pneumonia)
  • Aggravation of certain pulmonary diseases (e.g., asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema)

Some people use space heaters in the home to deal with the cold. If not designed for interior use or if in a state of disrepair, such devices can be a source of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide, which is odourless and colourless, can be life-threatening.

Risks related to Winter Storms

Winter storms can have a variety of impacts on health, such as:

  • Heart attack or angina in certain individuals resulting from strenuous snow shovelling
  • Injury (e.g., bruises and fractures) from falling on icy or snowy surfaces
  • Various trauma as the result of road accidents
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning if the vehicle's exhaust pipe is clogged with snow and exhaust accumulates under the vehicle (Running the engine when clearing snow from the vehicle increases the risk of poisoning, especially if snow around the exhaust pipe keeps the carbon monoxide from being vented away.) 

Risks related to Ice Storms

An ice storm can cause:

  • Injury (e.g., bruises and fractures) from falling on icy surfaces
  • Various trauma as the result of road accidents

When power outages occur as the result of winter storms and ice storms, other health risks may occur.

Reduce the Risks related to Power Outages

What To Do in a Winter Power Outage

Ice storms and heavy snowfalls can cause winter power outages. The following recommendations can reduce the risks to your health and safety.

> Evacuation

In certain situations, the risks may be so great that authorities to ask you to evacuate your home.

  • Follow the instructions given by the police or firefighters.

> Cold

Having to stay in a cold environment puts you at risk of hypothermia.

  • Keep dry and warm; move around; have hot beverages and food.
  • Seek medical help promptly if you have uncontrollable shivering, slurred speech, fatigue, or confusion.
  • Pay attention to young children, the elderly, and people with impaired independence.

Sometimes, it won't be possible to safely keep your home warm enough.

  • In such cases, stay with relatives or go to a shelter for catastrophe victims.

> Poisioning

Space heaters, cooking appliances, and barbecues designed for outside use; camping equipment; and generators can cause severe and life-threatening carbon monoxide poisoning.

  • Never use such devices indoors.
  • Install carbon monoxide detectors.
  • Should symptoms occur (e.g., headache, dizziness, fatigue, nausea) OR if a detector goes off:
  • Leave the premises and dial 911.
  • Do not go back in without fire-department authorization or an expert's opinion.

> Medication

Not taking your usual medications can aggravate your health or cause complications.

  • Have adequate supplies of medication for people who need to take medication on a regular basis.
  • If the medications weren't stored at the proper temperature, ask a pharmacist if they can still be taken. If not, obtain replacements.

> Food

Perishable items that haven't been kept refrigerated can cause food poisoning.

  • In the case of power outages lasting more than 6 hours, refer to the Ministère de l'Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l'Alimentation for information about what to keep and what to throw out.

If you have any concerns or questions about your health or that of your loved ones related to power outages or the cold, call Info-Santé at 811.

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Protecting Yourself in the Winter

Better Protecting Yourself from Winter's Effects

The following advice can help you avoid the harmful effects caused by extreme winter conditions.

Adopt Healthy Habits

  • Eat and drink a balanced diet (limit alcohol and coffee intake).
  • Keep a supply of nonperishables and water on hand.

Stay Warm Indoors

  • Make sure the home is kept adequately warm and insulated.
  • Do not use fuel-burning devices (e.g., heaters or generators) indoors.
  • Make sure the dwelling's heating system is in good working order (gas- or wood-burning fireplace).

Dress Appropriately

  • Wear warm clothes and cover as much of your body as possible, including your extremities.
  • Stay dry.

Exercise Caution When Outdoors

  • Take it easy when shovelling snow if you have heart disease.
  • Be careful when walking.
  • Limit strenuous physical activities during cold spells.

Driving Safety

  • Check the road conditions before getting behind the wheel.
  • Clear obstructions such as snow away from the exhaust pipe before starting the vehicle.

Winter Is also a Time for Fun!

Weather conditions permitting, make the most winter's many activities and attractions.

Check the program of activities in the region and in the province: