This Is What Being Too Cold In Your Own Home Does To Health

A GP speaks to HuffPost UK about the very real health impact of not being able to heat your home, as charities call on the government for urgent support.
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With energy bills about to go through the roof, people are understandably looking for ways to cut down this winter. But not turning the heating on could be at a detriment to health – especially if you’re more vulnerable due to underlying health issues, old age, or you have a very young baby at home.

That’s the warning from health chief Dame Jenny Harries, who told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme: “It is really important people ... keep their heating on, particularly at the extreme ages of life.”

The UK Health Security Agency’s (UKHCA) cold weather plan recommends that, during winter, people heat their homes to at least 18°C, providing they’re wearing appropriate indoor clothing.

At night, rooms should also stay around 18°C. This is particularly important for vulnerable groups, including those with babies, who are more susceptible to cold temperatures at night. The Lullaby Trust recommends a room temperature of 16-20°C and using light bedding or a lightweight, well-fitting baby sleep bag.

Siblings sleeping in their bed wearing winter hats and holding a teddy bear.
Maria Varaksina via Getty Images
Siblings sleeping in their bed wearing winter hats and holding a teddy bear.

How does living in a cold home impact health?

“When a patient can’t afford to heat their home, or is struggling to feed themselves and their family, it can lead to mental and physical ill-health,” Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs (RCGP), tells HuffPost UK – and GPs are already seeing this impact in practice.

Living in a cold home can impact the body in a multitude of ways. It’s thought cold temperatures can increase the likelihood of getting sick, as the immune system is not as effective at fighting off viruses.

Cold environments can also increase blood pressure and increase the likelihood of flu, heart attacks, stroke, breathing problems and pneumonia.

Dr Kenny Livingstone, a GP and founder of ZoomDoc, adds that cold temperatures can worsen arthritis, which can lead to accidents including trips, falls and even fractures in the elderly.

“The impeding winter fuel crisis will ultimately lead to thousands of deaths,” he says. “The impact on one’s health should not be understated.”

For elderly people, says Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, it becomes harder to regulate body temperature, meaning they are more vulnerable to the effects of the cold.

“At Age UK we fear that because fuel prices will be so high, some older people will skip meals and switch off their heating to try to save money, putting their health at serious risk. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that some could die as a result – and that’s something we would never say lightly.”

People with existing lung conditions are also more susceptible, as “breathing in cold air irritates your airways, and your lungs react by becoming tighter which makes it more difficult to breathe,” says Sarah MacFadyen, head of policy and external affairs at Asthma + Lung UK. “The cold is a common trigger for people with conditions like COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] and asthma and can lead to life threatening flare-ups and attacks.

“Cold homes in the longer term can also contribute to mould and damp – a trigger for the millions of people living with lung conditions in the UK.”

Damp and mould can exacerbate respiratory problems, respiratory infections, allergies or asthma, according to the NHS, while also impacting the immune system.

In addition to the physical repercussions of life in a cold house, there’s also the mental impact, which is often overlooked. Experiencing physical health problems can often affect your mental health – so it’s no wonder then that living in a cold home can increase a person’s risk of depression.

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Groups which are more vulnerable to the cold

Nobody is immune to the impact of living in a cold, damp environment however there are some groups who are especially vulnerable and need extra support. These include:

  • people with cardiovascular conditions

  • people with mental health conditions

  • people with disabilities

  • older people (65 and older)

  • households with young children (from newborn to school age)

  • pregnant women

  • people with respiratory conditions (in particular, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and childhood asthma)

  • people on a low income

Sarah MacFadyen warns that winter is “the deadliest season” for people with lung conditions. Asthma + Lung UK is “deeply concerned that energy price hikes will leave tens of thousands of people unable to heat their homes and fighting for breath,” she adds.

“We are seeing a spike in calls to our helpline and visits to our website for support with financial advice, and we’re worried we’re going to see a sharp decline in the country’s lung health this winter.”

The organisation is calling on the UK government to provide more financial support for people with long-term health conditions on low incomes, so they can afford to keep their homes warm this winter.

According to the government’s own advice, there is strong evidence that shows living in a cold home is associated with poor health outcomes and an increased risk of ill health and death for all age groups.

Age UK’s Caroline Abrahams concludes: “This is an impending national emergency and needs to be treated as such with an immediate package of support.”

A government spokesperson tells HuffPost UK: “We have taken action to help households with the cost of living, with £37 billion of targeted support to help people through the difficult winter ahead, including direct payments of at least £1,200 for eight million of the most vulnerable households.

“We are also working closely with the NHS to ensure we are ready for extra pressures this winter. This includes increasing capacity, boosting NHS 111 and 999 support, tackling delayed discharges from hospitals and using new innovations such as virtual wards to help ensure patients get the care they need.”

They add that the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities has been set up to examine how best to reduce, over time, unacceptable health disparities in England, focusing on the places and communities where ill health is most prevalent and life expectancy lower.