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The dangers of very cold weather for vulnerable people are well publicised, but did you know there is an increased risk of heart attack and stroke in the days immediately following a cold snap?

With parts of the UK experiencing temperatures below -10°C over the past few days, everyone should be taking more care and looking in on elderly relatives, friends and neighbours, who are more vulnerable to the cold. But it’s important not to stop once the weather starts to warm up again.

NHS England is warning that heart attacks increase almost immediately after a cold snap and that accounts for two in five ‘winter excess deaths’, as well as the same proportion of NHS excess winter admissions. Hospitals also see a rise in the admission of stroke patients five days after the cold weather begins, and peak admissions for respiratory conditions go up 12 days after the temperature drops.

People with respiratory illnesses also suffer during the cold weather. For every one degree that the temperature drops below 5 degrees, there is a 10% rise in elderly people presenting with breathing problems and almost a 1% increase in emergency admissions. So if the temperature drops 5 degrees there will be a 4-5% increase in people being admitted to hospital Accident and Emergency (A&E) departments.

The number of admissions is also linked to colder weather circulating viral infections, one of which is flu. Older people who may be frail, or who have existing health conditions, are particularly at risk. Last winter there were 400,000 additional A&E attendances, bringing the total to more than 7.5 million. That was an increase of 5.6% on the previous year.

The NHS is therefore advising the public to take sensible precautions to ensure they minimise the after-effects of extreme cold weather. Older people are advised to keep warm, both indoors and out. They should heat their homes to at least 18°C, and there is still time to get their flu jabs to avoid unnecessary hospital stays.

Pharmacists are fully qualified to give advice on the best course of action, and should be seen as soon as anyone feels unwell. Older and vulnerable people should also stock up on medicines when possible.

Keith Willett, NHS England National Director for Acute Care, said: “What the public are unaware of is the immediate knock-on effect of the cold weather. Patients who have pre-existing conditions may not be aware that they are most at risk of falling ill in the days after temperatures drop.

“This also adds pressure on already busy A&E departments and can be avoided by taking simple steps to keep well. Those with pre-existing heart and lung conditions and particularly the elderly should take care to keep their homes properly heated and get their flu jabs

“We are also asking the public to keep an eye on any elderly neighbours they might have who are the most vulnerable during the winter months.”

More information about how the public can stay healthy during winter can be found on the Stay Well This Winter section of the NHS Choices website. You can access it by clicking here.

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