Winter Weather: Take Steps
Taking preventive action is your best defense against having to deal with extreme cold-weather conditions. By preparing your home and car in advance for winter emergencies, and by observing safety precautions during times of extremely cold weather, you can reduce the risk of weather-related health problems.
What is Extreme Cold?
In regions relatively
unaccustomed to winter weather, near freezing temperatures
are considered “extreme cold.” Whenever temperatures
drop decidedly below normal and as wind speed increases,
heat can leave your body more rapidly. These weatherrelated
conditions may lead to serious health problems. Extreme cold is a dangerous situation that can bring on
health emergencies in susceptible people, such as those
without shelter or who are stranded, or who live in a home
that is poorly insulated or without heat.
Prepare for extremely cold weather every winter—it’s
always a possibility. There are steps you can take in advance
for greater wintertime safety in your home and in your car. Keep several days' supply of these items: Food that needs no cooking or refrigeration; Water stored in clean containers in case your water pipes freeze; and Medicines that any family member may need.
Emergency Supplies List:
- an alternate way to heat your home during a power failure:
- dry firewood for a fireplace or wood stove, or
- kerosene for a kerosene heater
- furnace fuel (coal, propane, or oil)
- electric space heater with automatic
shut-off switch and non-glowing elements
- multipurpose, dry-chemical fire extinguisher
- first aid kit and instruction manual
- flashlight or battery-powered lantern
- battery-powered radio
- battery-powered clock or watch
- extra batteries
- non-electric can opener
- snow shovel
- rock salt
- special needs items (diapers,
hearing aid batteries,
Prepare Your Home For Winter
Listen to weather
forecasts regularly, and check your emergency supplies
whenever a period of extreme cold is predicted. If you plan to use a fireplace or wood stove for emergency
heating, have your chimney or flue inspected each year.
Also, if you’ll be using a fireplace, wood stove, or kerosene
heater, install a smoke detector and a battery-operated
carbon monoxide detector near the area to be heated. Test
them monthly, and replace batteries twice yearly.
Your ability to feel a change in temperature decreases with
age, and older people are more susceptible to health
problems caused by cold. If you are over 65 years old,
place an easy-to-read thermometer in an indoor
location where you will see it frequently, and
check the temperature of your home often
during the winter months.
Insulate any water lines that run along exterior walls so
your water supply will be less likely to freeze. To the extent
possible, weatherproof your home by adding weatherstripping,
insulation, insulated doors and storm windows,
or thermal-pane windows.
If you have pets, bring them indoors. If you cannot bring
them inside, provide adequate shelter to keep them warm
and make sure that they have access to unfrozen water.
Prepare Your Car For Winter
You can avoid many dangerous winter travel problems by
planning ahead. Have maintenance service on your vehicle
as often as the manufacturer recommends.
- Have the radiator system serviced, or check the
antifreeze level yourself with an antifreeze tester.
Add antifreeze, as needed.
- Replace windshield-wiper fluid with a wintertime mixture.
- Replace any worn tires, and check the
air pressure in the tires.
- During winter, keep the gas tank near
full to help avoid ice in the tank
and fuel lines.
Winter Survival Kit For Your Car
- First Aid Kit
- A can and waterproof matches (to melt snow for water)
- Windshield Scraper
- Booster Cables
- Road Maps
- Mobile Phone
- Tool Kit
- Paper Towels
- Sand or Cat Litter (to pour on ice or snow for added traction)
- Tire Chains
- Water and Food
- Flashlight and extra batteries
- Canned compressed air with sealant (for emergency tire repair)
- Brightly colored cloth
Be Cautious About Travel
Listen for radio or television reports of travel
advisories issued by the National Weather Service. Avoid traveling on ice-covered roads,
overpasses, and bridges if at all possible. If you must travel, let someone know
your destination and when you
expect to arrive. Ask them to notify
authorities if you are late.
- Check and restock the winter emergency
supplies in your car before you leave.
- Never pour water on your windshield to
remove ice or snow; shattering may occur.
- Always carry additional warm clothing
appropriate for the winter conditions.
What to Do if You Get Stranded
Staying in your vehicle when stranded is often the safest
choice if winter storms create poor visibility or if roadways
are ice covered. These steps will increase your safety
- Tie a brightly colored cloth to the antenna
as a signal to rescuers and raise the hood
of the car (if it is not snowing).
- Move anything you need from the trunk
into the passenger area.
- Wrap your entire body, including your
head, in extra clothing, blankets, or newspapers.
- Stay awake. You will be less vulnerable to
cold-related health problems.
- Run the motor (and heater) for about 10 minutes per
hour, opening one window slightly to let in air. Make
sure that snow is not blocking the exhaust pipe—this will
reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- As you sit, keep moving your arms and legs to improve
your circulation and stay warmer.
- Do not eat unmelted snow because it
will lower your body temperature.
- Huddle with other people
When the weather is extremely cold, and especially if there
are high winds, try to stay indoors. Make any trips outside
as brief as possible, and remember these tips to protect your
health and safety:
Dress Warmly and Stay Dry
Adults and children should wear:
- Hat, Scarf or Knit Mask to cover face and mouth
- Sleeves that are snug at the wrist
- Mittens (they are warmer than gloves)
- Water-resistant coat and boots
- Several layers of loosefitting clothing
Be sure the outer layer of your clothing is tightly woven,
preferably wind resistant, to reduce body-heat loss caused
by wind. Wool, silk, or polypropylene inner layers of
clothing will hold more body heat than cotton. Excess perspiration
will increase heat loss, so remove extra layers of clothing
whenever you feel too warm. Shivering is an important first sign that the body is losing
heat. Persistent shivering is a signal to return indoors.
Cold weather puts an extra strain on the heart. If you have
heart disease or high blood pressure, follow your doctor’s
advice about shoveling snow or performing other hard
work in the cold.
injuries result from falls on ice-covered sidewalks, steps,
driveways, and porches. Keep your steps and walkways as
free of ice as possible by using rock salt or another chemical
Cold-Weather Health Emergencies
Serious health problems can result from prolonged
exposure to the cold. The most common cold-related
problems are hypothermia and frostbite.
When exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to
lose heat faster than it can be produced. Prolonged exposure
to cold will eventually use up your body’s stored energy.
The result is hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature.
Body temperature that is too low affects the brain,
making the victim unable to think clearly or move well.
This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a
person may not know it is happening and won’t be able to
do anything about it.
Hypothermia is most likely at very cold temperatures, but
it can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a
person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or
submersion in cold water.
Warning signs of hypothermia in adults: shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech, and drowsiness. Warning signs of hypothermia in infants: bright red, cold skin, and very low energy.
Victims of hypothermia are often (1) elderly people with
inadequate food, clothing, or heating; (2) babies sleeping in
cold bedrooms; (3) people who remain outdoors for long
periods—the homeless, hikers, hunters, etc.; and (4) people
who drink alcohol or use illicit drugs.
What To Do
If you notice any of these signs, take the
person’s temperature. If it is below 95°,
the situation is an emergency—get
medical attention immediately.
If medical care is not available, begin warming the
person, as follows:
- Get the victim into a warm room or shelter.
- If the victim has on any wet clothing, remove it.
- Warm the center of the body first—chest, neck, head,
and groin—using an electric blanket, if available. Or use
skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets,
clothing, towels, or sheets.
- Warm beverages can help increase the body temperature,
but do not give alcoholic beverages. Do not try to give
beverages to an unconscious person.
- After body temperature has increased, keep
the person dry and wrapped in a warm
blanket, including the head and neck.
- Get medical attention as soon as possible.
A person with severe hypothermia may be unconscious and
may not seem to have a pulse or to be breathing. In this
case, handle the victim gently, and get emergency assistance
immediately. Even if the victim appears dead, CPR should
be provided. CPR should continue while the victim is being warmed, until the victim responds or medical aid becomes
available. In some cases, hypothermia victims who appear
to be dead can be successfully resuscitated.
Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing.
Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas.
It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or
toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and
severe cases can lead to amputation. The risk of frostbite is
increased in people with reduced blood circulation and
among people who are not dressed properly for extremely
At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin area, get out
of the cold or protect any exposed skin—frostbite may be
beginning. Any of the following signs may indicate frostbite:
- a white or grayish-yellow skin area
- skin that feels unusually firm or waxy
A victim is often unaware of frostbite until someone else
points it out because the frozen tissues are numb.
What To Do
If you detect symptoms of frostbite, seek medical care.
Because frostbite and hypothermia both result from exposure,
first determine whether the victim also shows signs of
hypothermia, as described previously.
If (1) there is frostbite but no sign of hypothermia and (2)
immediate medical care is not available, proceed as follows:
- Get into a warm room as soon as possible.
- Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten
feet or toes—this increases the damage.
- Immerse the affected area in warm—not hot—water
(the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for
unaffected parts of the body).
- Or, warm the affected area using body heat.
For example, the heat of an armpit can be
used to warm frostbitten fingers.
- Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or
massage it at all. This can cause more damage.
- Don’t use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of
a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming. Affected
areas are numb and can be easily burned.
These procedures are not substitutes for proper medical
care. Hypothermia is a medical emergency and frostbite
should be evaluated by a health care provider. It is a good
idea to take a first aid and emergency resuscitation (CPR)
course to prepare for cold-weather health problems.
Knowing what to do is an important part of protecting your
health and the health of others.