Pre-COVID, 50 million homes across the EU were not being properly heated. Now, with economies weakened by the pandemic and energy costs soaring, that number is thought to be much higher. In the UK alone, an estimated seven million households are spending more than 10 per cent of their income on fuel, putting them in ‘fuel poverty’. But what does turning down the dial mean for our health?
Can living in a cold home make you ill?
Yes, and there are decades of public health studies to prove it. Numerous pieces of research show that cold homes can increase symptoms of heart disease and respiratory conditions like asthma, as well as regular coughs and colds.
“We know that cold homes have a very detrimental impact on health and will continue to do so in the winter for a large proportion of the population due to the fuel price increases,” says Matthew Scott, senior research and policy officer for the UK charity National Energy Action.
A 2019 study in UK adults linked lower indoor temperatures to higher blood pressure, perhaps partly explaining why more people die from heart disease and stroke in the winter. Meanwhile, the damp and mould that come with cold homes are known to cause respiratory problems and are often associated with wheezing and asthma in children. One 2019 New Zealand study suggested that hospital stays for under-twos with acute respiratory infections could be reduced by 20 per cent just by dealing with household damp and mould.
We know that more people were living in fuel or energy poverty after the global financial crisis in 2007, which made them more vulnerable to the health issues caused by cold homes. So we should be better prepared for what’s happening now, says Laura Oliveras, who studies energy poverty at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.
“We’re now in another crisis,” she says. “So if we don’t do something different, we can expect the same result, which is an increase in energy poverty and an increase in the impacts on health.”
Who is most at risk?
Being cold doesn’t have the same effect on everyone, because we’re not all equally vulnerable. People who already have respiratory conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma, for instance, may suffer serious breathing difficulties due to the cold because it causes their airways to tighten. The very old and the very young also tend to be more vulnerable to the effects of cold homes, partly because they’re not as good at regulating their body temperature.
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Meanwhile, people with disabilities may find it harder to leave the house, increasing exposure to the cold and damp conditions indoors that lead to poor health. Even living in a warmer climate won’t necessarily protect you. Some of the worst rates of energy poverty and excess winter deaths across Europe are, unexpectedly, found in Mediterranean countries like Spain, according to Oliveras’s work. This is because heating systems in these countries are often unable to cope with even mild winter temperatures. People living in Scandinavia, on the other hand, tend to be better protected.
What about mental health?
Anything that makes us uncomfortable in the place we spend most of our time is bound to have an impact on our mental health – whether it’s the neighbour’s dog barking or the cold. You may feel stressed, lose sleep or even become depressed. When it’s a cold home, the stress may also be linked to concern about rising energy bills. As Oliveras points out, these worries can have an immediate impact.
“With physical health effects, you need time to be exposed,” she says. “But if you can’t pay your bills, you’re accumulating debt and concerned about how to use less energy at the same time as you have the discomfort of being cold. All of this has a very fast effect on mental health.”
If you’re a parent, the mental load will be even greater because you’ll also be worried about the impact it has on your children. Parents of children under nine were more likely to be depressed if they lived in cold homes or were unable to pay their energy bills, according to a 2022 study on Irish families. This parental concern is not misplaced, as studies suggest that children living in cold homes are more likely to say they don’t feel happy at home, more likely to drink or smoke, and more likely to suffer mental health conditions.
So should I just turn up the dial?
Many of us simply can’t afford to. The UK government has announced universal energy discounts on top of existing cold weather payments. But “people are still very worried and they’re still turning everything down,” according to Scott, who says that more targeted support is needed this winter to prevent the inevitable ill health effects that come with cold homes.
The good news is that concerted efforts to tackle cold living conditions can really help. In a 2022 study, people living in East Sussex, UK, who had heating and insulation work done as part of a fuel poverty programme, filled in a health survey. They reported having fewer chest infections and less pain, as well as feeling less anxious and depressed.
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