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Climate and Health: Winter Weather Health and Safety Tips

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

Winter in Wisconsin can be fun and exciting, but sometimes weather conditions 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.

Winter safety tips and resources

Home weatherization and energy assistance resources

Make an emergency kit

Assembling an emergency supply kit for home and vehicle during winter can save your life if there is a severe winter storm or extreme cold event that leaves you without power or stranded in a vehicle.

Check on neighbors

Isolated, older adults, and people with disabilities or hearing loss can be unaware of rapidly changing weather conditions. They may need help when cold temperatures become unsafe.

Stay safe in the cold

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

More detailed winter weather safety information

Click the categories below for more detailed winter weather safety information.

Have furnaces checked annually for efficient and safe operation before the heating season arrives, and be sure to change your filters monthly. Weather forecasts often provide ample warning time 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, gather items you may need if the power goes out in your home:

  • 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 flashlights, radio, cellular telephone, hearing aids, and 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

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.

Snow-covered or icy sidewalks can be slippery which can cause people to fall and injure themselves, so promptly remove snow and ice from sidewalks after a snowfall. Many local governments have laws requiring snow removal from sidewalks within a designated period of time after the snow has stopped falling. Wearing sturdy, rubber-soled boots and wearing traction devices on the bottom of shoes and boots can help prevent slips and falls.

When you do go outside after a storm to clear the sidewalks, dress appropriately: wear layers of windproof and waterproof clothing, and be sure to wear a hat, gloves, and boots. 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 if steps you can take during extreme cold snaps.

Getting a service check-up for your vehicle before the snow flies and investing in snow tires are a good idea if possible. Stay off the roads when a winter storm is in the forecast and, 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. Contact them when you arrive at your destination and update them if your plans change. Make sure your contacts know your estimated arrival time, and ask them to contact the appropriate authorities on your behalf if they cannot reach you.

Before you leave, make a winter emergency kit and place it in the backseat of the vehicle in case the trunk freezes shut. 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
  • Multi-purpose tool or a household tool box
  • Tow rope
  • Booster/jumper cables
  • Drinking water
  • Compass and paper road map
  • Candle, tin can, matches
  • Extra batteries if you have hearing aids or a cochlear implants
  • Food and water for a service animal or pets

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

  • Stay in your vehicle—disorientation may occur quickly in wind-driven snow and cold.
  • Run the motor about 10 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.
  • To keep warm and blood circulating, exercise from time to time by vigorously moving arms, legs, fingers and toes.

Review the National Weather Service's winter weather terminology and check the weather status before heading outdoors. Be sure to listen carefully to weather reports and NOAA Weather Radio for the latest winter storm watches, warnings, and advisories.

Winter weather advisory—An advisory is issued when snow, blowing snow, ice, sleet, or a combination of these wintry elements is expected, but conditions should not be hazardous enough to meet warning criteria. Be prepared for winter driving conditions and possible travel difficulties. Use caution when driving.

Winter storm watch—A watch is issued when conditions are favorable for a significant winter storm event (heavy sleet, heavy snow, ice storm, heavy snow and blowing snow or a combination of events.)

Winter storm warning—A warning is issued for a significant winter weather event, including snow, ice, sleet or blowing snow or a combination of these hazards. Travel will become difficult or impossible in some situations. Delay your travel plans until conditions improve.

Blizzard warning—A blizzard warning is issued when snow and strong winds will combine to produce a blinding snow with near zero visibility, deep drifts, and life-threatening wind chill.

Wind Chill Index—Wind chill is a measure of how cold people feel from the combined effect of wind and cold temperatures. The Wind Chill Index is based on the rate of heat loss from exposed skin. Both cold temperatures and wind remove heat from the body. As the wind speed increases during cold conditions, a body loses heat more quickly. Eventually, the internal body temperature also falls and hypothermia can develop. Animals also feel the effects of wind chill.

Wind Chill Warning—This warning is issued for a combination of very cold air and strong winds that will create dangerously low wind chill values. This level of wind chill will result in frostbite and lead to hypothermia if precautions are not taken. Avoid going outdoors and wear warm protective clothing if you must venture outside. See the National Weather Service Wind Chill Chart.

Source: National Weather Service

For more information, contact your local health department or Tribal health center.

Last revised April 12, 2024