Cold exposure in winter is more dangerous than you think

Posted on 27 July 2018

Being outdoors in winter can have serious health risks. In severe circumstances, you could be at risk for contracting hypothermia. Here’s how to ensure you stay safe.

According to Vinny Pillay, a senior ER24 paramedic, your heart needs to work harder to keep your body temperature regulated in extremely cold weather. This may cause your heart rate and blood pressure to increase and can exacerbate already existing heart conditions.

Exercising outdoors

cold air, asthmaWarm up with gentle exercise before engaging in physical activity outdoors in winter. Make sure you are suitably dressed for the cold weather. A lot of heat is lost from your head so wear a hat and scarf when going outside. Taking frequent breaks from walking, hiking or other forms of exercise also helps protect your heart.

Breathing in cold, dry air aggravates your airway lining and exacerbates symptoms in those with asthma. In addition, viruses propagate in winter, which put you at a higher risk for flu during the colder months. When people with flu cough or talk, the virus can spread via minute droplets that you inhale. Avoid getting ill by washing your hands often and using hand sanitiser.

If you enjoy swimming in winter, take extra precautions. A sudden drop in temperature when you enter cold water results in the constriction of your skin’s blood vessels as well as an elevation in your heart rate. This is a physiologically protective reflex, but it may exacerbate existing cardiovascular problems and the risk of drowning. If you plan to take a dip in the colder months, consider wearing a wetsuit.


Chilblains occur when your skin’s blood vessels on your hands or feet become inflamed as a result of exposure to cold. Symptoms include redness, itchiness and swelling. Wear layers of warm clothes, gloves and water-resistant shoes to prevent this from occurring.


cold, heart

A rapid loss of body heat due to cold exposure can result in hypothermia. You’re at risk for this condition when your body loses heat at a higher rate than it can produce heat. Heat escapes from your skin via radiation and this process is exacerbated by wind and moisture. Symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • Shivering
  • Clumsiness
  • Apathy
  • Shallow breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Exhaustion

Hypothermia is a medical emergency and must be treated immediately by a health professional. Pillay adds that while waiting for the medic, you can help someone who is suffering from hypothermia by covering them with a blanket.

In addition, you can:

  • Replace their wet clothes with dry garments
  • Relocating to a warm and dry shelter away from winds and drafts
  • Avoid offering alcohol or caffeine as these substances exacerbate heat loss
  • Apply hot water bottles or heat packs to replace heat




Published in First Aid

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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