Winter health: How we can all make a difference

Actions by individuals, communities and organisations can have a major impact on keeping people healthy and well during the winter time.

A new report on improving winter health, published by Public Health Wales, acknowledges the effects of traditional seasonal factors that cause poor health such as influenza and injuries due to falls. However, it also finds wider issues such as poverty, poor housing and unhealthy behaviours play significant roles.

Wales, like many other countries, has higher levels of illness and death during the winter months. The winter of 2017-18 saw 3,400 more deaths compared with the rest of the year due to conditions such as lung disease, heart and circulatory disease, dementia and falls. Older people and those with long term health problems are particularly at risk of worsening health as a result of cold weather.

Dr Frank Atherton, Chief Medical Officer for Wales, said:

“Even moderately cold temperatures of 8°C, which we are already experiencing in Wales, can cause health problems, particularly for those with long term health issues. Although it may sound obvious, simple actions such as wrapping up and wearing a hat, scarf and gloves can make a big difference. 
“It’s also important to keep indoor temperatures above 18°C as we know cold homes harm health. And individuals receiving financial support should also make sure they’re accessing their entitled funds, which can help with the cost of heating.

“Having the flu vaccination if you’re over 65, or have a health problem, are a child or are pregnant is another one of the most effective ways of staying healthy during winter. Stopping the spread of infections by washing your hands regularly and not going to work or school if you have flu symptoms can also make a real difference.” 

The report finds that individuals, their communities and support networks, and organisations from different sectors can all take action to help keep people well during the winter season. For example, individuals within their communities can help by checking on elderly relatives, friends or neighbours who may become isolated during the winter months. 

Feedback from professionals working in a range of services and sectors across Wales has helped to identify some of the challenges and solutions to improving winter health and reducing demands on health and care services. These include supporting community resilience, helping people with long-term illnesses to self-manage their conditions, and moving to continuous planning based on prevention rather than focusing on preparing for winter months. 

Partnership working between health and social services, community services and third-sector organisations also reduces the need for hospital admissions and can help patients be discharged more quickly and safely from hospital. 

Dr Sumina Azam, Consultant in Public Health, said:

“The findings of this report provide a real opportunity to change how we look at and think about winter health. By understanding the causes of what makes people ill in winter, and focussing on keeping people well with support in their local communities, we know that there can be real benefit to the well-being of the people of Wales."