STUMP » Articles » Cold Kills: Some Comparisons of Heat and Cold Deaths 1999-2020 » 29 December 2022, 06:12

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Cold Kills: Some Comparisons of Heat and Cold Deaths 1999-2020  


29 December 2022, 06:12

Some say the world will end in fire….

While I continue to wait for finalized death stats to get uploaded into CDC WONDER, and as we have witnessed a mass death event due to extreme weather in my state of New York, I decided to pull some death stats for 1999-2020 so you can see how many deaths due to heat and cold we’ve seen over this period.

Deaths over time, 1999-2020

First, let’s look at the time series. The rate is so low, as it’s only a few hundred people each year, I will only graph the actual number of people who died from these causes. I could do the crude rate, but there’s little point, and the age-adjusted rate doesn’t budge to the level of the significant figures that are reported (which is only 1 – the error bars are too big to report more).

I did know that deaths due to cold exposure were generally higher than heat exposure (as the underlying cause of death — though it almost definitely holds for contributing cause of death as well).

That it is an increasing cause may be related to increasing homelessness and increasing alcohol-related deaths and increasing drug-related deaths.

It may also be related to the increasing aging of the population.

Age distribution of deaths, 1999-2020

Because of how these deaths are reported, I aggregated all the heat- and cold-exposure deaths over the entire 21-year period to make the age distribution comparison.

Some of this is related to the age distribution of the overall population, but it is pretty clear that deaths due to exposure to the cold skews old, compared to deaths due to exposure due to the heat.

If you think of the various ways people die of exposure to the cold, this can make sense.

While the current storm, and people getting stuck outside in the storm, many deaths by freezing can be more mundane: an elderly person wandering away from home in the winter, and getting lost, and freezing overnight. Homeless people dying on the streets. Those sometimes make headlines, but usually, they’re local news.

For heat exposure, we see the tragic spikes for babies and young children, and we all think of the kids left in hot cars and similar situations. Other recent news would be people smuggled in containers, which would skew older, of course.

Geographic distribution of deaths, 1999-2020

For geographic distribution, I was able to use crude rates, averaged over the 20-year period.

Here is the map for deaths due to cold:

Deaths due to heat:

Some remarks:

Yes, you will note some states are missing in the maps. When there were fewer than 10 deaths for the full 21-year record, CDC WONDER won’t give me the stats. So there were no stats to report for Hawaii for deaths due to cold (but there were for Florida, so note that). Just as North Dakota and Wyoming had no stats for heat deaths.

You need to keep in mind the nature of natural temperature exposure deaths. Sure, New Mexico is in the south, but it’s desert country. It can get cold there. And if some of those cold exposure deaths are related to illegal border crossings from Mexico, that may explain some of their high rates. It can also relate to alcoholism. New Mexico is relatively high on alcohol-related deaths.

For destruction, ice is also great and would suffice

(just quoting Robert Frost)

Being winter, we’re going to be hearing far more stories of people dying from cold right now. It is not unusual, and sometimes people forget how dangerous nature can be.

Cold hads been used as a method of suicide, famously, as a method of murder (allegedly), and in some of the stories coming out of Buffalo, New York it can come on you unawares.

There are no good ways to die, but this is not the way you want to go, in particular. It sucks.

There is some good advice here, and it’s good to have some gear in your vehicle (I have a few items myself, just in case).

You can’t prepare for all the things that come – none of us get out of here alive, after all – but a few items to deal with the normal things that come in winter may be useful.

Stay warm!


I’m using Underlying Cause of Death, and using two codes:

X30 – Exposure to excessive natural heat
X31 – Exposure to excessive natural cold

This simplifies matters in terms of comparisons. To be sure, both cold and heat can kill in ways other than simple exposure — people can over-exert themselves and then suffer heart attacks from shoveling snow, for instance — but to keep the comparisons as simple as possible, let’s do it this way. I’m not using “contributing cause of death” for this comparison.

Citation: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. National Vital Statistics System, Mortality 1999-2020 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released in 2021. Data are from the Multiple Cause of Death Files, 1999-2020, as compiled from data provided by the 57 vital statistics jurisdictions through the Vital Statistics Cooperative Program. Accessed at on Dec 28, 2022.

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