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Walloped by Winter Weather? How to Stay Safe

commuters in snow
From the WebMD Archives

From frostbite to heart attacks, winter weather can create many potential health hazards.

As a blizzard hits much of the eastern U.S.  and temps in the single digits and below zero cover much of the country, here are some tips to keep you safe, both indoors and out.

Preventing Frostbite

Each year, dozens of Americans die from exposure to cold weather, according to the National Weather Service. Frostbite can also make you lose fingers or toes.

Try to avoid being outside. If you have to go out, follow these tips:

  • Dress as warmly as possible in lightweight layers. Wear a hat, cover your mouth to protect your lungs, and use mittens instead of gloves.
  • Recognize frostbite symptoms: a loss of feeling, or white or pale-looking toes, fingers, earlobes, or the tip of the nose.
  • Get medical help right away if you think you have frostbite.
  • Get to a warm area and remove wet clothing. If you can’t do that, use your body heat to warm the frostbitten area. Warm your body core before you do arms and legs.
  • If you are shivering uncontrollably, slurring speech, or having memory loss, you could have hypothermia. Get medical help ASAP.

If You Lose Heat in Your Home

  • Close off unneeded rooms; stuff rags or towels under cracks in doors.
  • Ventilate a fireplace or wood stove properly if you use one.
  • Cover windows at night.
  • Dress in loose layers that you can add to or take off as needed.
  • Only use a portable generator outdoors.

Before It Snows/Storms

Gather needed supplies ahead of time as much as possible, including:

  • Extra food, including foods that don’t need to be refrigerated
  • Bottled water
  • Flashlights and batteries, and other battery-powered items in case the power fails
  • A non-electric can opener
  • Extra blankets and sleeping bags
  • A 1-week supply of essential medicines.
  • Refrigerated foods that are frozen ahead of time, along with ice for coolers.

If the Power Goes Out: Food

  • Refrigerated foods will stay cold for about 4 hours; keep fridge doors closed to increase that time.
  • A full freezer stays at that temp for about 48 hours; a half-full freezer for about 24 hours.
  • Eat leftovers, meat, poultry, and any foods with milk, cream, soft cheese, or sour cream first. Throw them out, along with other perishable foods, after 4 hours without power.
  • Frozen foods that contain ice crystals may be cooked and eaten if power comes back.
  • These foods are generally safe to keep at room temperature for a few days: butter, margarine, hard cheese, fresh fruit and most vegetables, fruit juice, dried fruit, opened jars of vinegar-based salad dressing, jelly, relishes, taco sauce, barbecue sauce, mustard, ketchup, and olives. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has an extensive list of what foods are safe to keep.
  • If in doubt, throw it out.


If your medicine needs to be refrigerated, throw it out if the power has been out for a long time. The exception: If you can’t get new medication and you need it, continue to take it.

Shoveling Snow

Snow is heavy. Picking up a shovel and moving that weight around can put a big strain on your heart, especially if you are out of shape. Pushing a heavy snowblower can be harmful, too.

The National Safety Council offers these tips:

  • Don’t shovel if you have a history of heart disease or heart attack or stroke, or are not in good physical condition, without a doctor’s permission Take frequent breaks.
  • Don’t drink alcohol before or after.
  • Don’t eat a heavy meal before or after.
  • Don’t smoke while shoveling.
  • Push the snow, don’t lift it.
  • Lift with your legs, not your back.


WebMD Health News Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on January 04, 2018


New York State, Homeland Security and Emergency Services.

U.S. Department of Agriculture: “A Consumer’s Guide to Food Safety: Severe Storms.”

National Weather Service: “Winter Storms.”

National Safety Council: “Why do People Die Shoveling Snow?”

CNN: “In photos: Brutal Cold Torments US.”

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