Extremely cold temperatures across Canada have put the nation’s most vulnerable at even greater risk, as finding shelter indoors becomes a matter of life and death.

Dr. Brett Belchetz, CTV medical expert and an emergency physician, says getting the homeless out of the elements is crucial, as the cold weather can quickly turn deadly.

“The most important thing that we can do to prevent hypothermia, to prevent frostbite, is to keep people out of the cold,” he said. “Nobody should be out in the cold for a prolonged period of time when the weather is like this.”

“We need to take all efforts that we can to make sure that the vulnerable in our society are brought indoors and brought to a warm place,” he added.

Belchetz said doctors currently have a heightened level of awareness when it comes to making sure people are coping with the cold. The two most common conditions are hypothermia and frostbite.

Hypothermia is a condition where the body loses heat faster than it can be produced. Hypothermia can set in when the body dips even just a few degrees below its normal temperature of 37 degrees Celsius. Death becomes a real risk once the body dips to about 27 C.

“Hypothermia is something that we are always on the lookout for,” said Belchetz. “This can set in very quickly when people are outside for any prolonged amount of time without the right amount of protection.”

Frostbite is an injury caused when the skin freezes. When the temperature dips to -40 C with the wind chill, exposed skin can start to freeze in just a few minutes.

“We have to make sure we are always thinking about the cold whenever we see a patient,” Belchetz said.