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Climate and Health: Winter Weather Health and Safety Tips

Winter in Wisconsin can be fun and exciting, but sometimes the conditions can become dangerous. Winter storms can sweep through bringing high winds, large amounts of accumulating and drifting snow, ice, and extreme cold temperatures. Being prepared ahead of a storm will help you get through it safely.

A thermometer in the snow showing the temperature of -10 degrees C


Assemble an emergency supply kit.

Assembling an emergency supply kit both at home and in your car during winter can save your life if there is a severe winter storm or extreme cold. 

Check on your neighbors.

Isolated or elderly individuals can be unaware of rapidly changing weather conditions and may not be able to sense and respond to low temperatures during winter.

Protect yourself from extreme cold.

Protect yourself by wearing loose layers of clothing underneath a wind and weather resistant coat. Look for symptoms of hypothermia including shivering, exhaustion, confusion, and slurred speech.

Below is more detailed winter weather safety information. Click the arrow on the right to expand the sections.

Have furnaces checked annually for efficient and safe operation before the heating season arrives, and be sure to change your filters monthly. A winter weather service check-up for your vehicle by your auto service technician is a good idea. Weather forecasts often provide ample warning to prepare for an impending storm, blizzard, ice-storm, or extreme cold temperatures. If you know of someone who may not be aware of weather warnings, such as a person with a hearing loss, help by sharing the information. When a winter storm warning is issued, prepare for it by gathering items you may need if the power goes out in your home, such as:

  • Candles, matches
  • Hand cranked or battery operated flashlight
  • Hand cranked or battery operated radio
  • Cellular telephone (make sure that it is fully charged and keep it charged throughout the storm in case of loss of power)
  • Extra batteries (for the flashlight, radio, cellular telephone, hearing aids and for cochlear implants)
  • Blankets or sleeping bags
  • Extra clothing
  • High-calorie non-perishable food (such as granola bars)
  • Extra food and water for your service animal or pets
  • First aid kit and any medications you require
  • Tool kit

During a storm, you should stay inside. If you are using heat from a fireplace, wood stove or a space heater, be sure to use the appropriate fire safeguards and properly ventilate the device to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. If you lose heat in your home, close off un-used rooms. Be sure to eat and drink as food provides the energy your body needs to produce its own heat. Wear layers of loose-fitting clothing and remove layers when necessary to avoid overheating, perspiration, and subsequent chill.

When spending time outdoors, everyone should dress warmly and stay dry. Layer clothing, preferably wind resistant, to reduce loss of body-heat caused by the wind. Do not ignore shivering as it is an important first sign that the body is losing heat. Persistent shivering is a signal to return indoors. Learn more about Extreme Cold.

Removing snow and ice from sidewalks after a snowfall is very important. Snow-covered or icy sidewalks can be slippery which can cause people to fall and injure themselves. Because of this, many municipalities have laws stating that the snow must be removed from sidewalks within a certain amount of time after the snow has stopped falling. Wearing sturdy, rubber-soled boots and taking care where you step can go far in preventing slips and falls.

When you do go outside after a storm to clear the sidewalks, be sure to be properly dressed: wear layers of windproof and waterproof clothing, and be sure to wear a hat and gloves. Avoid wearing cotton as it takes a long time to dry and will sap your heat. Instead, wear synthetic fabrics that wick moisture from your skin and dry quickly.

To prevent injuries while shoveling, try pushing the snow with short strokes instead of lifting it. Also, use your leg muscles and not your lower back to move the shovel. Take frequent rests, and again, be aware of the precautions to take with extreme cold temperatures.

If you must travel during a winter storm, try to plan ahead:

  • Keep your gas tank near full to avoid ice in the tank and fuel lines.
  • Tell relatives and friends where you are going and when you expect to return. Agree to contact them when you arrive if heading to a different location. If your plans change, be sure to update them. Make sure your contacts know to keep track of the time, and if they have not heard from you in a timely fashion, tell them to contact the appropriate authorities on your behalf.

Before you leave, make a winter emergency kit and place it in your car. The kit should include:

  • Blankets/sleeping bags
  • Flashlight with extra batteries or a hand crank flashlight (preferably with a mobile phone adapter)
  • First-aid kit
  • Utility knife
  • High-calorie, non-perishable food (for example: granola bars)
  • Extra clothing to keep dry
  • Sack of sand (or cat litter) for traction
  • Shovel
  • Windshield scraper and brush and extra windshield wiper fluid
  • Tool kit
  • Tow rope
  • Booster (jumper) cables
  • Water container
  • Compass and road maps
  • Candle, tin can, matches
  • Extra batteries if you wear hearing aids or a cochlear implant
  • Food and water for a service animal or pets if you are traveling with them

If you are caught in your vehicle during a winter storm:

  • Stay in your car or truck: disorientation may occur quickly in wind-driven snow and cold.
  • Run the motor about ten minutes each hour for heat only after ensuring that your exhaust pipe and radiator are not blocked by snow or other debris. Open the window a little for fresh air to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Make yourself visible to rescuers. Turn on the dome light at night when running the engine. Tie a bright colored cloth (preferably red) to your antenna or door. After the snow stops falling, raise the hood to indicate trouble.
  • Exercise from time to time by vigorously moving arms, legs, fingers and toes to keep blood circulating and to keep warm.

Winter weather advisory — When a significant winter storm or hazardous winter weather is occurring, imminent, and is an inconvenience.

Winter storm watch — A significant winter weather event (i.e.., heavy snow, heavy sleet, significant freezing rain, or a combination of events) is expected, but not imminent, for the watch area; provides 12 to 36 hours notice of the possibility of severe winter weather.

Winter storm warning — A significant winter storm or hazardous winter weather is occurring, imminent, or likely, and is a threat to life and property.

Blizzard warning — Winds that are at least 35 mph or greater, blowing snow that will frequently reduce visibility to 1/4 mile or less for at least three hours, and dangerous wind chills are expected in the warning area.

Wind chill index — The calculation of temperature that takes into consideration the effects of wind and temperature on the human body. This is not the actual air temperature, but what it feels like to the average person. This wind chill chart shows the difference between actual air temperature and perceived temperature, and the amount of time until frostbite occurs.


For more information, contact your Local Health Department.

Last revised December 27, 2022