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Extreme Cold

Check Environment Canada’s website for information on your local forecast and weather alerts.

Serious health problems can result from prolonged exposure to the cold, such as frostbite and hypothermia. Many factors play a role in how our bodies react to the cold. These include environmental factors such as temperature, wind and sun, as well as individual factors such as age, physical condition, clothing and level of activity.

Frostbite Symptoms and Treatment

Frostbite is an injury to body tissue caused by exposure to extreme cold.  Frostbite mostly affects areas where circulation is poorer. It most commonly affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes. Frostbite is a serious condition that can cause permanent damage and, in the most severe cases, can lead to amputation. Although injuries from frostbite are very common, they are also preventable.

Signs and Symptoms:

Look for the 4 "P"s of frostbite:

  1. Pink - Affected areas will be reddish in colour – this is the first sign of frostbite
  2. Pain - Affected areas will become painful
  3. Patches - White, waxy feeling patches show up indicating that the skin is dying
  4. Pricklies - The areas will then feel numb


  • Remove the person from the cold
  • Gently begin to warm the affected areas using:
    • Warm water – Test the water temperature with an unaffected part of the body to reduce the chance of burning
    • Body heat – Such as placing frostbitten fingers in the armpits or between the thighs
  • Re-warming of the affected area should continue until the skin returns to a normal colour
  • Do not rub or massage the affected area as this may cause damage to this tissue
  • Do not use heating pads or blankets as affected areas may be numb and could get burned
  • Do not re-warm if a person will be exposed to the cold again and there is a chance for re-freezing
  • Call 911 for severe frostbite or frostbite over large areas of the body, and watch for signs of hypothermia
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Hypothermia Symptoms and Treatment

Hypothermia, or low body temperature, is the result of exposure to cold conditions. Hypothermia is the most serious cold weather injury which can lead to brain damage and even death. Low body temperature affects the brain and the ability to think clearly or move well, making it increasingly dangerous. A person suffering from hypothermia may not know or be able to do anything about it. Hypothermia usually occurs in extremely cold temperatures but can also occur at more moderate temperatures if a person loses heat due to exposure or submersion in water. 

Signs and Symptoms

  • Look for the "UMBLES" from people affected by cold temperatures:
    • A person who mumbles
    • A person who stumbles
    • A person who fumbles objects
  • For infants, look for cold reddish skin and low energy. Always have a thermometer at home


  • Call 911
  • Move the person to a warm area
  • Remove any wet clothing
  • Begin gentle body re-warming by using:
    • Warm and dry blankets or clothing
    • Skin to skin contact
  • If the person is alert, give them warm non-alcoholic beverages
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Who is at Risk?

Although everyone can be affected by extreme cold, the following people are at a higher risk for cold weather injuries:

  • Seniors
  • Infants and children
  • People with pre-existing medical conditions
  • People who lack appropriate shelter
  • Newcomers to Canada
  • Outdoor workers
  • Sport/outdoor enthusiasts
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Stay Warm and Safe

Plan for the cold weather

  • Limit your exposure to extreme cold weather
  • If it's too cold outside, consider staying indoors
  • Check your local weather forecast for temperature, wind chill and weather warnings
  • Keep extra mittens and gloves in the car, house or school bag

Dress for the cold

  • Make sure your head, face, ears, neck, hands and feet are well protected:
    • Wear a hat, gloves or mittens to prevent heat loss and protect from frostbite
    • Wear a scarf to protect the chin, lips and cheeks which are all extremely susceptible to frostbite
    • Keep feet warm and dry and wear wool socks if possible
  • Wear layered, windproof and waterproof clothing:
    • Inner Layer (closest to the skin) - Should have "wicking" properties to keep moisture away from the skin
    • Middle Layer - Should be the insulating layer to retain body heat, such as wool
    • Outer Layer - Should be the "windbreaking" layer to reduce the chances of cold air reaching the insulating layer
  • Dress yourself and your children appropriately for the weather conditions.
  • Frequently check that children remain appropriately dressed 

Limit the effects on your body

  • Drink warm fluids
  • Avoid alcoholic beverages as they cause your body to lose heat more rapidly
  • Do not ignore shivering. It is a sign that the body is losing heat
  • If you start to sweat, cool off a little. Wet clothes can encourage cold weather injuries
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Some of this content was adapted with permission from Ottawa Public Health.

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