The Impact of Cold Temperatures on Health

A World Health Organisation Report in 1985 established that there is a link between poor health and low indoor temperatures. Since then further research has strengthened this finding and demonstrated that fuel poverty is today a contributing factor in a number of cold, and poor housing, related health conditions. Professor Christine Liddell reported in 2008 that every £1 spent on reducing fuel poverty saved the NHS 42 pence.

Some existing health conditions can be affected badly by cold and others can be brought on as a result of prolonged exposure to the cold. Respiratory disorders can be worsened by prolonged exposure to low indoor temperatures and people living in cold homes have an increased tendency to suffer colds, flu, bronchitis and pneumonia.

At temperatures below 12°C, blood tends to thicken, leading to an increase in blood pressure and increased risk of heart attack and stroke as the heart works harder to pump blood round the body. Hypothermia is caused by longer-term exposure to the cold (though longer-term may only be a matter of a couple of hours).  The chronically sick, disabled and those with lower mobility levels are particularly at risk from hypothermia.

In addition cold conditions in a home can contribute to condensation dampness and mould growth. This has a detrimental effect on some allergies. Mould spores and dust mites in the air can cause allergic reactions, which in turn can cause problems for people with respiratory illnesses such as asthma.

In Britain, a cold spell during an otherwise mild winter, depending on its duration, can see the following: 

  • After two days there is a sudden rise in heart attacks, by up to a third;
  • After five days there is a big rise in the number of strokes;
  • And twelve days into a cold spell there is a rise in respiratory illnesses.