Cold weather increases the risk of illness and death from coughs, lung and heart problems, falls, poor mental health and carbon monoxide poisoning from poorly maintained heating appliances.
In Australia, more deaths are related to moderate cold than to heat or extreme cold. There are also more deaths in the winter months of June to August than in the summer months of December to February.
During periods of cold weather, make sure you and the people you care for stay warm, well and safe. Check on older neighbours, friends and relatives, especially those living alone or with a health condition, to see how you can help. Make sure that they have plenty of food, any medication they might need, and can get out and about.
To keep your home warm:
- If you are aged 65 years or over, or if you have low mobility or a health condition, heat your home to at least 18 degrees C. If you can’t heat all the rooms you use, heat the living spaces during the day and your bedroom just before you go to sleep. (Visit the DHHS Services website or call the Victorian Concessions Information Line on 1800 658 521 to find out if you are eligible for any energy concessions.)
- Babies need to sleep in a room at a temperature between 16 and 20 degrees C. For information on safe infant sleeping – read Sudden unexpected death in infants (SUDI and SIDS) or visit Red Nose.
- Close windows, curtains and blinds at night to keep heat in.
- Seal any gaps that let in draughts, especially around doors and windows, and insulate walls and ceilings where you can.
- Have your gas appliances tested by a licensed gas fitter for carbon monoxide spillage before using– inadequate ventilation can make your appliance unsafe.
- If you are not on mains gas or electricity, make sure you have enough alternative fuel so you don’t run out during the cold months.
Visit Sustainability Victoria for more tips on how to keep your home warm.
Look after your health
It’s important to look after your health during the colder months, as the lower temperatures can increase your risk of heart attack, stroke, flu, pneumonia, hypothermia and injuries from falls. So, over the winter:
- Get your flu vaccine from your GP – it’s free for:
- people over 65 years old
- all children aged from six months until they turn five
- people with medical conditions that can make influenza severe
- pregnant women
- all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders over 6 months old
Even if you’re not in any of these categories, you can still pay to get a flu shot from your GP. Participating pharmacies are also able to give flu vaccines to people over 16 years of age.
- See your GP early for a check-up if you feel unwell, especially if you are older or have another medical condition.
- Layer your clothing both for indoors and out. Cotton, wool and fleecy fibres retain heat well.
- Wear well-fitting footwear with a good grip to prevent slips, especially when outside.
- When indoors, get up and move around at least every hour or so. Make yourself a hot drink. If walking is difficult, do some foot and arm exercises in your chair.
- If it is difficult for you to go out, make sure you have a supply of the medication you need.
- Fit some exercise into your week – it’s good for you year-round and it’s great for keeping warm in winter.
- Eat well – have plenty of hot food and drinks and aim for two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables per day. Tinned and frozen vegetables count too.
- Keep up your social contacts – get out of the house when you can to see friends or shop.
Heating and safety
Heating your home can keep you warm and well, but is not without its risks. To make sure that you are heating your home safely this winter:
- Make sure you have working smoke detectors outside each sleeping area – test them monthly and change the batteries every year at the same time.
- If you use appliances that burn gas or solid fuel (such as wood and coal):
- Get your gas heating and cooking appliances serviced by a registered gasfitter every two years or immediately if there is any sign of trouble. Use a licensed gasfitter endorsed for gas appliance servicing, who will test for carbon monoxide spillage.
- Make sure fireplaces and wood burning stoves and their chimneys and flues are serviced regularly to prevent accidental fires.
- Don’t block flues or chimneys even if they are draughty as they allow carbon monoxide to escape.
- Fit an audible carbon monoxide alarm that meets European (EN50291) or US (UL2034) standards in any room that contains a gas fuel burning appliance and test it regularly.
- Don’t use gas hotplates or ovens to heat homes – it is inefficient and there is a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Never bring portable appliances designed for outdoor use inside your home or caravan. This includes portable heaters, patio heaters, BBQs or LPG-powered lights.
- Be aware that landlords must keep your house in good repair, including all gas and electrical appliances they provide. Contact Energy Safe Victoria (Tel. (03) 9203 9700) or Consumer Affairs Victoria (Tel. 1300 55 81 81) for more information.
- When using heaters:
- Use safety guards around heaters and keep clothing, curtains or toys one metre away.
- Keep rooms well ventilated and stop using faulty appliances immediately, especially if you think they may be giving off carbon monoxide gas.
- Don’t overload power boards by plugging too many appliances in.
- Don’t leave heaters on overnight or for long periods if not needed.
- If you have central heating, set your timer (if you have one) to come on earlier and turn off later rather than turning up the thermostat.
- Use microwavable heat packs (adults) rather than hot water bottles to reduce the risk of scalds.
- If you use an electric blanket, use it only as instructed. Don’t leave it on for more than 30 minutes and have it tested every three years. Never use a hot water bottle with an electric blanket.
To make sure you are not paying more than you need to for your household heating:
- Check what energy concessions you may be eligible for. Low income earners who hold eligible concession cards may be eligible for a range of concessions and benefits, including:
- gas – apply to your gas retailer for the Winter Energy Concession, it gives discounts on gas bills from May to October
- electricity – contact your electricity retailer for the Annual Electricity Concession, Service to Property Charge Concession and Electricity Transfer Fee Waiver (for those moving house)
- non-mains fuel sources such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), firewood for domestic heating, cooking or hot water, heating oil, electricity accessed via an embedded network, generator fuel – if you are relying on a non-mains fuel source you may be eligible for the Non-Mains Energy Concession
- Use the Victorian Government's free, independent energy price comparison tool, Victorian Energy Compare, to make sure you are getting the best energy deal available.
- Heat your home as efficiently as you can.
Make your home as energy efficient as you can
To improve the energy efficiency of your home heating:
- Close curtains at dusk to keep the heat in.
- Make sure heaters are not covered by furniture or curtains.
- If you have central heating, install a timer or programmable thermostat, and set it to come on just before you get up and switch off after you’ve gone to bed. If it’s very cold, rather than turning the thermostat up, set your heating to come on earlier and turn off later. For other types of heating, turn them off before going to bed and don’t leave them on for long periods if not needed.
- Draught proof your house. Seal gaps and cracks, including those around windows and doors, skirting boards and architraves and exhaust fans. However, do not use your gas appliances until they are tested by a licensed gas fitter for carbon monoxide spillage - inadequate ventilation may make your gas appliance installation unsafe
- Zone your home – heat just the areas you use such as the living areas during the day and bedroom when getting ready to go to bed.
- Insulate your walls and ceilings – if your ceiling insulation has been there for a while it might not be performing as well as it could. Check what type of insulation you have and top it up if it is less than 50 mm thick.
- Maintain your heating system: keep vents and filters clean, make sure there are no leaks, and service the system as recommended by the manufacturer and have gas heaters serviced by a registered gasfitter every two years.
- Dress for the weather even indoors. Cotton, wool and fleecy fibres retain heat well.
- If you’re installing a new heating system or buying a new heater, choose energy efficient options if you can – select heating that is the right size for your home or the room you wish to heat.
Sustainability Victoria has tips on how to use your heating system efficiently and therefore save energy (and money) in your home, including if you’re renting.
Where to get help
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Department of Health and Human Services - RHP&R - Health Protection - Environmental Health Unit
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