While cold weather conditions in Australia are generally not as extreme or prolonged as in other parts of the world, exposure to cold conditions is often the second most common extreme weather-related cause of death in a given year, after extreme heat (Table 1, Figure 2).
Deaths from injury due to extreme cold have risen gradually from 8 in 2015–16 to 29 in 2018–19 and 37 in 2020–21 (Figure 2). Research indicates people aged 65 years and older, and residents of major cities are at greater risk of death due to extreme cold (Peden et al.2023).
Exposure to extreme cold can lead to conditions including hypothermia and frostbite.
Hypothermia is when the body temperature (normally 37°C) drops below 35°C. A body temperature below 32°C is life threatening.
Hypothermia can occur due to exposure to air temperatures under 10°C or water temperatures under 20°C. Generally older people, children, people with conditions affecting circulation, people who are thin or with little body fat, outdoor workers or homeless people are more vulnerable to hypothermia (NSW Health 2022a).
Frostbite occurs after prolonged exposure to cold weather and extremely low temperatures; cold wind can exacerbate its progression. Frostbite can progress from symptoms of pain and loss of feeling, to severe situations where tissue dies and the treatment includes amputation.
NSW Health (2022a) Hypothermia, NSW Health, NSW Government, accessed 4 April 2022.
Peden AE, Heslop D, Franklin RC. Weather-Related Fatalities in Australia between 2006 and 2019: Applying an Equity Lens. Sustainability. 2023; 15(1):813. https://doi.org/10.3390/su15010813.