Wind chill and cold weather

Cold weather can be hazardous. Every winter in Canada, people suffer serious injuries, and even death, from exposure to the cold.  Dress warmly and watch out for frostbite - numbness and color change in your fingers and toes - and other cold related symptoms, such as shortness of breath, chest pain, muscle pain and weakness.

Extreme cold puts everyone at risk.  The risks are greater for young children, older adults, people with chronic illnesses, people working or exercising outdoors, and those without proper shelter. 

Cold weather safety tips
  • Dress warmly. Dress in layers that you can remove if you get too warm. The outer layer should be wind resistant.  Synthetic and wool fabrics provide good insulation.
  • Cover up. Frostbite can develop within minutes on exposed skin, especially with wind chill. Watch for colour changes on fingers and toes, pain, numbness, a tingling sensation, or swelling. 
  • Keep dry to stay warmer.
    Person dressed for the winter cold
    Photo: © gettyimages.ca, 2014.
  • Keep moving to maintain your body heat and seek shelter from the wind.
  • Outdoor workers should take regularly scheduled breaks to warm up.
  • If it’s too cold for you to stay outside, it’s too cold for your pet to stay outside.
  • Ask a health professional how medications or health conditions can affect your risk in the cold. A person with a heart condition should avoid strenuous activities like shovelling snow.
  • Check on older family, friends and neighbours.
  • Keep emergency supplies in your vehicle such as extra blankets and jumper cables.
  • Make sure your home is well-insulated, the heating system is working efficiently and cracks and drafts are sealed. 
  • Follow the seven steps to cold weather safety and reduce your risk.

Cold weather injuries

Exposure to the cold can cause serious injuries, including:

  • Frostbite: Skin is numb, appears yellowish or white and is hard to the touch.  The skin and underlying tissues are frozen.  This can lead to nerve damage, blistering, and even amputation. 
  • Hypothermia:  Being cold over a prolonged period of time can cause a drop in body temperature, which can be life-threatening. Watch for shivering, confusion, and loss of muscular control or difficulty walking.  Severe hypothermia can be life-threatening.  Seek immediate medical assistance. 
  • Heart attack: Watch for chest pain, shortness of breath or weakness. Extreme cold reduces circulation and puts more strain on the heart.  Be alert for symptoms of heart attack.
  • More about the health risks and treatment of extreme cold injuries

Who is most at risk?

Anyone who is not warmly dressed is at risk, and the risk increases the more time you spend outdoors.  Be sure to protect children and pets.  Others who are vulnerable include infants, seniors, and those who are outdoors for long periods of time.

Extreme cold warnings and wind chill forecasts


Photo: © istock.com, 2014.

Child walking in the snow wearing winter clothing.

Before going outside or planning outdoor activities, check the weather forecast from Environment and Climate Change Canada for the latest weather conditions, forecasts, and warnings for your locality.

Be alert for extreme cold warnings.  These warnings, based on local climate conditions, are issued when significant cold temperatures or windchills are expected to occur for at least two hours.  Extremely cold temperatures, even if there is little or no wind, can also be hazardous.  Wind chill warnings have been replaced by extreme cold warnings and are no longer issued.

Wind chill is included in the current conditions and the weather forecast when temperatures are below zero and the combination of temperature and wind speed reaches the threshold value (based on local climate conditions), or colder.  Wind chill forecasts are issued for today, tonight and tomorrow only (not for the full seven day weather forecast).

The Wind Chill Index

A biting wind can make cold temperatures feel even colder.  Canada’s Wind Chill Index combines the temperature with the wind speed to express this cooling effect in temperature-like units.  Exposed skin at very cold wind chills can freeze in only minutes.  Very cold temperatures, even if there is little or no wind, can also be hazardous. 

How to use the wind chill index

  • Check out our chart showing how to protect yourself as the wind chill becomes colder

Wind chill activities and brochures

Be prepared for winter

Winter weather can also bring blizzards, storm surges and other hazards. 

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