Preparing for winter
Cold weather can be a worry for those of us in later life. As we get older, our bodies respond differently and this can leave us more vulnerable in cold weather.
But with a little preparation, and by following some simple suggestions, we can help ourselves to stay healthy, safe and as comfortable as possible in winter. More suggestions can be found in our Winter Wrapped Up guide.
Keeping warm both inside and outside your home can help reduce your risk of serious health problems that are more common in the colder months, such as chest infections, heart attacks and strokes.
Getting ready for the cold weather – which can start as early as October – means that you’re more likely to keep warm and well.
Download the guide
Here are some things you can do to stay safe and ward off the winter chills:
- Get your heating system serviced every year by a qualified engineer to ensure it's running safely and efficiently.
- Never block air vents and if you have wood-burning, coal or gas heaters make sure there’s adequate ventilation.
- If water pipes freeze they can burst. Make sure you know where the main stopcock is and check that it's easy to turn so you can turn off the water if you need to.
- Have your electric blanket serviced at least every three years.
- Make sure your smoke alarm is working. You can ask your local fire service to check your home for fire safety. It’s free and you may be eligible to get free smoke alarms fitted.
- Install an audible carbon monoxide alarm in each room that has a gas appliance.
- Make sure you claim all the financial support you can to help with heating bills.
- Dress in plenty of layers and make sure you have warm shoes or boots with non-slip soles.
- Keep a mixture of salt and sand handy to put on steps or paths in icy weather.
- Consider fitting a grab rail if you have steps at your front or back door.
- Keep simple cold, flu and sore throat remedies in the house.
- Follow up your GP’s invitation to have a flu jab.
- Order repeat prescriptions in plenty of time, particularly if bad weather is forecast.
- Ask your local pharmacy if they offer a prescription pick-up and delivery service.
- Keep basic food items in the cupboard or freezer in case it’s too cold to go shopping. You could also do your food shopping online and get it delivered to your door.
- Eat healthily and keep as active as possible.
- Ask your family, neighbours or friends if they could call or visit you more often.
- Keep a torch handy in case you lose power and keep your radio, mobile phone, laptop or tablet fully charged, so you can use the battery power if there's no electricity. If there is a power cut you can call 105 for free. You'll be put through to your local network operator who can give you help and advice.
- Keep a list of emergency numbers, such as your utility companies, by your phone.
For more information about how to prepare for winter, download our free information guide Winter wrapped up.
Download the guide
Staying active is not only essential for your general wellbeing and fitness - it also generates heat and helps to keep you warm.
When you’re indoors, try not to sit still for more than an hour. Get up and walk around, make yourself a warm drink and spread any chores throughout the day.
Chair-based exercises are helpful if walking is difficult, along with moving your arms and legs and wiggling your toes.
Hot meals and drinks help to keep you warm, so eat at least one hot meal each day and have hot drinks during the day. Having a hot drink before bed and keeping one in a flask by your bedside are good ideas too.
Include a good range of foods in your diet and aim for five portions of fruit and vegetables each day so that you’re getting plenty of nutrients and vitamins. Remember that frozen vegatables are as good as fresh.
It’s important to eat enough, especially in winter. If you’re worried about a poor appetite, speak to your GP.
Have a seasonal flu jab
If you’re over 65, the Government recommends that you have a seasonal flu jab every year. Flu viruses are always changing, so you need a jab every year, using the latest vaccine. Flu is not only unpleasant; it can also develop into pneumonia, which can be serious.
Your jab will be free if:
- you’re 65 or over
- you receive Carer’s Allowance or are the carer for a person whose welfare will be at risk if you fall ill
- you have a condition such as diabetes, a chronic heart, lung, kidney or liver problem, Parkinson’s, or if you have had a stroke.
It takes up to ten days for the vaccine to take effect, so it’s best to have it early on in the winter.
Your vaccinated arm may be sore, or you may have a slight temperature or aching muscles for a few days, but other side effects are rare.
Check you’ve had a ‘pneumo’ jab
The ‘pneumo’ (or pneumococcal) jab is a one-off jab that helps protect you against pneumonia, meningitis and septicaemia. If you’re over 65 and haven’t had one, ask your GP.
Give up smoking
This is a good thing for your overall health, as smoking lowers your immune system and can cause serious health conditions. After you stop smoking, you’ll quickly notice that you’re breathing is easier and that doing any exercise is more comfortable.
Ask your GP practice about NHS services to help you give up. Call the free NHS Smokefree helpline on 0300 123 1044.
Protect yourself against chilblains
Chilblains are itchy red swellings that occur when your skin gets cold and you try to warm up too quickly, often by sitting close to a radiator or other source of heat.
If you suffer from these, dab the swellings with calamine or witch hazel to reduce itching, but don’t scratch them as this could cause an infection.
To help prevent chilblains, keep your whole body warm at all times.
Speak to your pharmacist for advice on treating chilblains and to your GP if you regularly get them or have diabetes.
Take care when driving
If you absolutely have to drive in bad weather, make sure you allow extra time for your journey. Tell someone your destination and when you expect to arrive. Always fully charge your mobile phone before you set off on a journey and make sure you have warm clothes, boots, food, water, a torch and a spade in case you need them.
Keep your spirits up
It’s not unusual to feel a bit down in winter – particularly when the days are short and it can get dark by 3.30pm. It helps to do something you enjoy every day.
Try to keep to your usual routine and if you can’t visit friends or family, phone or Skype them regularly. If possible, go for a short walk in the middle of the day, if it’s not too cold, or at least go outside while there is daylight.
If you feel down for several weeks and it’s stopping you going out, making you feel listless and lacking in energy, it’s very important to share these feelings with someone – perhaps a friend or your GP.
For more information about staying healthy during the winter, see our free information guide Winter wrapped up.
Download the guide
You can also download our free winter health resources.
Keeping your home warm
Low temperatures increase the risk of flu and other respiratory problems and can raise blood pressure. Blood pressure takes longer to return to normal in older people after being out in the cold and this puts us at greater risk of heart attacks and strokes. The colder your home, the higher the risk to your health.
- Keep your main living room around 70°F (21°C), and the rest of your home heated to at least 64°F (18°C).
- Check your thermostat or use a room thermometer to monitor temperature but if you feel cold, turn the heat up regardless of what the thermometer reads.
- Get to know how the timer and thermostat on your heating system work. If you have individual thermostats on your radiators, make sure they’re set at the right temperature in the rooms where you spend time.
- Close the curtains at dusk and fit thermal linings if you can. This will keep the heat in.
- Put guards on open fires, and be careful not to hang washing too close to the fire.
- Don’t block up air vents, as fires and heaters need ventilation.
- Keep your bedroom window closed at night when the weather is cold. The coldest time of the day is just before dawn and breathing in cold air raises the risk of chest infections.
- Test your carbon monoxide alarms. If you don’t have any alarms, you need to get one fitted in each room that has a gas appliance, as there’s a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning if air vents become blocked.
- Contact your local Age UK for a benefits check and advice on any financial support you may be eligible for. If you’re having difficulty paying your heating bills, Charis Grants can direct you to grants to help with utility debts.
Keeping warm indoors and out
Even if it isn't a severe winter, cold weather makes us more vulnerable to certain illnesses. You’re at risk of a heart attack, a stroke or even hypothermia if you’re exposed to a cold environment for a long time, or to extreme cold for only a short time.
- Make sure you keep your hands and face warm. As well as wearing gloves and a hat, always wrap a scarf around your face when you go out in cold weather, even for short intervals. This helps to warm the air you breathe.
- Several thin layers of clothing will keep you warmer than one thick layer, as the layers trap warm air. Clothes made from wool or fleecy synthetic fibres such as polyester are a better choice than cotton. Start with thermal underwear, warm tights or socks.
- If you’re sitting down, a shawl or blanket will provide a lot of warmth. Try to keep your feet up, as the air is cooler at ground level.
- Wear warm clothes in bed. When very cold, wear thermal underwear, bed socks and even a hat – a lot of heat is lost through your head.
- Use a hot-water bottle, wheat bag or an electric blanket to warm the bed, but never use a hot-water bottle and an electric blanket together as this can be dangerous. Check whether your electric blanket can be kept on all night or whether it’s only designed to warm the bed before you get in. Get it checked every three years by an expert. If you have continence difficulties, talk to your doctor before using one.
- Keep your feet warm. Choose boots with non-slip soles and a warm lining, or wear thermal socks.
- Check local news and weather forecasts for advice when cold weather is predicted.
Heating your home
Energy prices are high, but heating your home is easier and cheaper if it is well insulated and your heating works properly.
- Draught-proof doors and windows, insulate the loft, lag the hot-water tank and pipes, and consider getting cavity-wall insulation. These measures will help to keep your home warm and your bills down – and you may be able to get financial help to put them in place. The Energy Saving Trust or Home Heat Helpline can advise you. For more energy-saving tips see our free information guide Save energy, pay less.
- Have your heating system serviced each year and check that it’s working before the cold weather starts. Gas heating must be serviced by a Gas Safe-registered engineer. Visit the Gas Safe website to find out how to check their licence, or to find a registered engineer in your area.
- Ask your energy supplier about their Priority Services Register, a service for older and disabled people.
- You could be eligible for financial help from the Energy Companies Obligation (ECO) scheme if you’re on a low income, receive certain means-tested benefits such as Pension Credit, or live in a home that would be costly and difficult to make more energy efficient. To find out whether you’re eligible, contact the Energy Saving Trust.
- Check your current energy tariff and shop around to see if you can get a better deal.
- Contact your energy supplier if you’re having difficulty paying your bills. Companies should not disconnect all-pensioner households during winter months.
Download our Winter wrapped up guide for more tips on keeping warm in winter:
Download the guide
Extra money to stay warm in winter
Most people born on or before 6 May 1953 are entitled to the Winter Fuel Payment in 2016-17 to help with heating costs. This is a tax-free payment of between £100 and £300 paid to you between November and December. Contact the Winter Fuel Payment helpline on 0345 9 15 15 15 to find out more.
If you receive Pension Credit, or certain other benefits, you’re automatically paid a Cold Weather Payment when the temperature is 0°C (32°F) or below for seven days in a row.
You may be entitled to a Warm Home Discount on your electricity bill if you receive Pension Credit or if you’re on a low income. It’s a one-off discount usually made between October and March. Find out more at www.gov.uk/the-warm-home-discount-scheme
Read our free information guide Save energy pay less for more advice on heating your home efficiently.
Download our free Winter wrapped up guide for more tips on keeping warm in winter:
Download the guide
Winter health resources
Each winter, one older person dies every 7 minutes from the cold
Research highlights that there is a general lack of awareness of the effects that cold weather can have on an older person’s health. A recent survey showed that many people wrongly believe that hypothermia is the main cause of excess winter death. There is also a belief that leaving a window open at night to let in fresh air is good for your health, whereas the opposite is true – breathing in cold air lowers body temperature and raises the risk of chest infections.
Cold weather causes a massive increase in associated health problems: heart attacks, strokes, pneumonia, depression, worsening arthritis and increased accidents at home (associated with loss of strength and dexterity in the hands).
Help us to get the word out to older people. Download and display posters at your local library, community group or other winter themed event.
- 70°F (21°C) is the ideal temperature for your living room
- 64°F (18°C) is the ideal temperature for your bedroom
- Keep your bedroom window shut on at night
Download our winter health posters:
Ideal bedroom temperature (PDF 88 KB)
Ideal living room temperature (PDF 87 KB)
Shut the bedroom window (PDF 138 KB)
Download our recipes for a warmer winter:
Recipes for a warmer winter (PDF 491 KB)
Help an older person this winter
If you have an older friend or relative close to you, our Winter Wrapped Up guide may help them prepare for the winter season
There are some simple things you can do to support them through the cold weather too:
- Call or visit more often if the cold weather stops your friend or family member from getting out and about. This can help keep their spirits up and make them feel less isolated.
- Make sure they have basic food items in the cupboard or freezer in case it’s too cold to go shopping.
- Pick up prescriptions if it’s too cold for them to go out, or find out if their local pharmacy offers a prescription pick-up and delivery service.
- Help to prevent falls. Bring round a mixture of salt and sand for putting on steps or paths in icy weather. Some councils provide free bags of the mix, otherwise try a local DIY store.
- Make sure they keep warm. Their main living room should be heated to 70F/21C, and the rest of the house heated to at least 64F/18C. Low temperatures increase the risk of flu and other respiratory problems and can raise blood pressure.
- Encourage them to get a benefits check to make sure they’re claiming everything they’re eligible for. Their local Age UK can offer a benefits check, or they can use our online benefits calculator.
Download our Winter Wrapped Up guide to find out more ways to help someone stay warm and well.
Download the guide
If you’d prefer a free paper copy, call Age UK Advice on 0800 169 2081.
Campaign for Warm Homes
We're calling on the Government to reform its energy efficiency programmes to enable all older people to live in a warm home.
Read more about our Campaign for Warm Homes here