BLOG: How to Stay Healthy in Harsh Winter Weather

By: Dr. Karen Murphy, Secretary of Health

January 25, 2016

This past weekend, Pennsylvania saw our first major snowstorm of the season. While all of us hope that we don’t experience another Winter Storm Jonas this year, all Pennsylvanians should be prepared to brave the snow, wind, and cold for many more weeks.

In light of this historic storm, the Pennsylvania Department of Health is reminding Pennsylvania residents to follow some important tips to stay healthy and safe, particularly while removing snow in cold winter weather.

Keep Your Heart Healthy

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. When removing snow, make sure you stay as warm as possible. Always call 911 if you or your loved ones have any heart attack symptoms.

The major symptoms of a heart attack are:

  • Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, upper abdomen, or back;
  • Feeling weak, light-headed, or faint;
  • Chest pain or discomfort;
  • Pain or discomfort in arms or shoulder;
  • Shortness of breath;
  • Unusual or unexplained tiredness;
  • Nausea; and
  • Vomiting.
Shovel Smartly

If you have to do outdoor chores, dress warmly and work slowly. Your body is already working hard just to stay warm, so don’t overdo it. Follow these additional tips to make removing snow safer:

  • Consider shoveling in shifts instead of all at once;
  • Take breaks and drink water to prevent dehydration;
  • Push snow instead of lifting it – if you must lift, bend your legs and not your back;
  • Avoid twisting motions that can stress your back; and
  • If using a snow blower, follow all safety instructions and stay aware of others who may be nearby.
Dress Appropriately

Exposure to cold temperatures, whether indoors or outdoors, can cause serious or life-threatening health problems. Infants and older Pennsylvanians are at greater risk of serious cold-related health problems and should be checked frequently to ensure they are warm enough during winter weather.

If you have to go outside in harsh winter weather:

  • Dress warmly and stay dry;
  • Make outdoor trips brief and dress warmly;
  • Cover your ears, head, mouth, and face;
  • Never ignore shivering – it’s your body’s way of saying you’re losing heat and it’s time to return indoors;
  • Know the symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite:
    • Hypothermia causes shivering, exhaustion, confusion, memory loss, slurred speech or drowsiness in adults and bright red, cold skin and very low energy in babies.
    • Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas and symptoms include a white or grayish-yellow area of skin, numbness or skin that feels unusually firm or waxy.
    • Seek medical attention if it is suspected that you or your loved ones have hypothermia or frostbite.
Beware of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless gas that can cause sudden illness and death if inhaled. The use of other sources of fuel or electricity for heating, cooling, or cooking can cause CO to build up in a home or garage and poison the people and animals inside. CO is found in combustion fumes, such as those made by small gasoline engines, stoves, generators, lanterns, and gas ranges, or by burning charcoal and wood.

In order to prevent CO poisoning:

  • Never use a gas range or oven to heat a home.
  • Never run a generator outside an open window, door, or vent where exhaust can vent into an enclosed area.
  • Never run a generator inside a basement, garage, or other enclosed structure, even if the doors or windows are open, unless the equipment is professionally installed and vented.
  • Never use a charcoal grill, hibachi, lantern, or portable camping stove inside a home, garage, or camper.
  • Install a battery-operated CO detector.

CO poisoning can be recognized by the following symptoms:

  • Headache;
  • Dizziness;
  • Weakness;
  • Nausea/Vomiting;
  • Chest pain; and
  • Confusion.

If CO poisoning is suspected, call a health care professional right away. If the CO detector alarm sounds, leave your home immediately and call 9-1-1.

Visit for more winter weather safety tips.


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