Snow and Cold: The Advice You Need to Get Through Chicago Winters

Here's a look at some things you should know as you take on Chicago winters

NBCUniversal Media, LLC

As temperatures drop or heavy snow falls, things can get dangerous.

It's important to be prepared, take precautions and know your resources.

Here's a look at some things you should know as you take on Chicago winters.

Know Your Cold Weather Symptoms and Warning Signs

How Do I Know If I Have Hypothermia?

Hypothermia is caused by a drop in body temperature to 95 degrees or less, which can become deadly, officials said.

Signs of hypothermia include:

  • Shivering
  • Exhaustion
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Weak pulse
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Bright red, cold skin in infants

According to a release, infants and the elderly are more at risk of hypothermia, which should not be treated at home. Individuals suspected to have the condition should be treated at a hospital.

How Should I Avoid Frostbite?

Frostbite could set in on exposed skin in as little as 15 minutes, officials said. The face, ears, hands and feet tend to be the most commonly impacted.

According to a release, frostbite skin is whitish and stiff, and tends to feel numb rather than painful.

In order to treat frostbite, officials advised to warm the affected part of the body gradually before seeking medical attention.

"Wrap the frostbitten area in blankets, sweaters, coats, etc. and seek medical attention immediately," a release said.

Officials warned to not rub frostbitten areas of the skin because the friction can damage the tissue.

  • Signs of frostbite: Numbness, white or grayish-yellow skin, and firm or waxy skin.
  • What to do if you think you have frostbite: Go to a warm room. Soak in warm water. Use body heat to warm. Do not massage or use a heating pad.

Dressing for Frigid Weather

Though officials advised people in the Chicago area stay indoors during the cold, these are some ways to keep warm should residents need to go outside, according to a release:

  • Wear several layers of lightweight clothing rather than one or two heavy garments because the air between the layers of clothing acts as an insulation
  • Cover your head because you lose nearly 50% of body heat through the head
  • Wear mittens rather than fingered gloves
  • Wear leg coverings and heavy socks or two pairs of lightweight socks
  • Wear waterproof boots or sturdy shoes for maximum traction
  • Cover your ears and lower part of your face as these areas or more prone to frostbite
  • Cover your mouth with a scarf to protect the lungs from directly inhaling extremely cold air

Traveling in Snow and Subzero Temperatures

Driving Tips in Snow

When bad weather hits, it's always best to stay off the roads. If you don't have a choice, the Illinois Department of Transportation has important information to keep you safe.

IDOT recommends that drivers:

  • Always wear a seat belt. It’s the law in Illinois.
  • Slow down. Slower speeds, slower acceleration, slower steering and slower braking all are required in winter driving conditions.
  • Drop it and drive. Put down the handheld devices – it, too, is the law in Illinois.
  • Don’t crowd the plow. A snowplow operator’s field of vision is restricted. You may see them, but they may not see you.
  • Avoid using cruise control in snow and ice.
  • Watch out for black ice on roads that appear clear but can be treacherous.
  • Be especially careful approaching intersections, ramps, bridges and shady areas. All are prone to icing.
  • Do not travel during bad weather unless absolutely necessary. If you do have to make a trip, check the forecast and make sure someone is aware of your travel route. Consider taking public transportation if it is an option.
  • Follow Scott’s Law. Slow down and move over for stopped emergency, construction and maintenance vehicles.

AAA released similar precautions and considerations for snowy conditions. AAA recommends that drivers:

  • Drive slowly
  • Increase your following distance by five or six seconds
  • Apply firm, steady pressure on your brake
  • Don't use cruise control

For up to date road conditions, click here.

Driving Tips in Ice

If travel is necessary in subzero temperatures, officials urge commuters to watch for scattered slick spots likely forming on ramps, overpasses, bridges and shaded areas overnight.

“The team at IDOT will be monitoring the roads, treating them as necessary, and assisting motorists as needed,” Acting Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Omer Osman said. “Please make sure to have the necessary supplies and equipment in your vehicle should you encounter problems, and do not leave your vehicle in the event of a breakdown. Call for help and wait for assistance to arrive.”

Drivers should share the roadways, officials advised, as Illinois law requires drivers to change lanes when approaching police, first responders and broken-down vehicles.

In addition, a release said drivers should slow down when approaching snow plows and maintenance vehicles, giving workers more room to operate.

Other tips from the Illinois Tollway include:

  • Be sure your cell phone is fully charged before heading out. 
  • Be sure tires are properly inflated during cold weather. Tires lose a pound of pressure for every 10 degrees the temperature drops. 
  • Keep your gas tank at least half full to avoid gas line freeze-up and ensure that you have extra to account for additional driving time if the weather is unfavorable. 

When roads are icy, AAA recommends:

  • Be careful on bridges and overpasses, they freeze before the road
  • Avoid unnecessary lane changes
  • Drive, turn, and brake slowly
  • During a skid, keep your eyes on the road, and don't slam on the brakes

Any time you're driving in cold temperatures, AAA recommends keeping warm clothing, food and water in your car. Drivers should also keep tires properly inflated and maintain at least a half tank of gas.

For up to date road conditions, click here.

Things to Keep in Your Car

All vehicles should have an emergency kit equipped with the following items in case an individual becomes stranded, according to Illinois Emergency Management Agency Director Alicia Tate-Nadeau:

  • blankets
  • non-perishable food
  • boots
  • extra clothing

The Illinois Tollway also recommends keeping gloves, boots, blankets, road flares, water and a flashlight with fresh batteries in your car.

The Illinois Department of Transportation recommends an emergency kit with jumper cables, flares or reflectors, windshield washer fluid, a small ice scraper, traction material, blankets, non-perishable food and a first-aid kit. They also recommend you carry a cell phone and a car charger in case of emergency.

What to Do If You Get Stranded

Advice from the Illinois Tollway includes:

  • Stranded motorists should turn on their emergency lights and remain in their vehicles until help arrives. 
  • Cell phone users should call *999 motorist assistance for roadway assistance and note the roadway and direction of travel and nearest milepost or crossroad.

Preparing Your Home for the Cold and Snow

Ways to Save Money During the Colder Months

Little changes can add up to big savings with these weatherization tips, Nicor Gas recommends:

  • Regularly replace air and furnace filters; most filters should be cleaned or replaced every 60-90 days. A clean filter will allow the system to run more efficiently. 
  • Open window coverings during the day to allow sunlight to heat your home naturally, and close curtains at night to reduce the chill from cold windows.
  • Keep furniture, drapes, stuffed animals and other objects away from heating sources.
  • Adjust timer controls and programmable thermostats. Some older thermostats may not have an internal clock and need to be adjusted manually. 

How Can I Avoid Carbon Monoxide Poisoning When Heating My Home?

Properly heating the home during excessively cold temperatures is necessary during winter months, officials warned.

According to a release, more than 400 people die every year in the U.S. from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, which is found in fuels from cars, small engines, stoves, lanterns, grills, fireplaces, gas ranges or furnaces.

Here are some tips to avoid CO buildup:

  • Never use a generator inside the home, basement or garage
  • Do not use a stove or oven as a home heating source
  • If using a space heater inside the home, keep it at least three feet from flammable items such as curtains, blankets and couches

According to Nicor Gas, checking that outdoor vent openings and air intakes are not obstructed by snow and ice can help "ensure the safe, proper operation of natural gas appliances, such as a furnace or water heater," which can prevent the potentially hazardous buildup of carbon monoxide within a home or business.

Signs of CO poisoning include: headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain and confusion, a release said.

Things to Remember When Removing Snow or Ice

Nicor Gas urged customers to "exercise caution removing snow or ice from your natural gas meter assembly."

Tips include:

  • Use your hands or a broom, not a shovel, to brush away snow or ice from your meter and regulator.
  • Never kick or hit your gas meter or its piping with a hammer or other hard object to break away built-up snow or ice.
  • If a natural gas meter is damaged or underground gas line is exposed, immediately leave the area and call 911 or the 24-hour emergency response line 888.Nicor4U (642.6748) from a safe location.

Space Heater Safety

Peoples Gas recommends those who must use a space heed the following advice:

  • Only use newer models with safety features like automatic shut-off.
  • Plug the heater directly into the wall.
  • Don’t use extension cords or power strips.
  • Place the heater on a flat surface away from children and pets
  • Keep it at least 6 feet away from flammable materials like drapes or blankets

Preparing Your Home in Case of a Power Outage

The Federal Alliance for Safe Homes recommends taking the following steps to prepare for a power outage during cold weather:

  1. Insulate pipes exposed to the elements or cold drafts with insulating foam. For as little as $1 per 6’ of insulation, you can stop pipes from freezing and save energy.
  2. Place an insulating dome or other covering on outdoor faucets and spigots to reduce the likelihood of the water in your pipes freezing, expanding and causing a costly leak.
  3. Drip faucets to reduce the build-up of pressure in the pipes. Even if the pipes freeze, you have released the pressure from the water system reducing the likelihood of a rupture. If you are going out of town, and suspect that temperatures will drop or a power outage will occur, turn off the water to your home and open all of the taps to drain the water system. This way you won’t return to a frozen, soggy mess.
  4. Check for air leaks around windows and doors using a lit incense stick. If the smoke is sucked out of an opening, seal the leak with caulk, spray foam or weather stripping.
  5. Keep a supply of non-perishable foods, medicine, baby supplies, and pet food on hand, and have at least one gallon of water per person per day on hand.

What Should I Do If the Power Goes Out?

The Federal Alliance for Safe Homes also recommends:

  • Keep a supply of flashlights, batteries and a battery-powered radio on hand. Do not use candles as they pose a fire hazard.
  • After the power goes out, make sure to turn off all lights but one, to alert you when power resumes.
  • Resist the temptation to call 911 for information during power outages. Instead use your battery-powered radio for information.
  • Keep your car fuel tank at least half full as gas stations rely on electricity to operate their pumps and may not have back-up power.
  • Keep extra cash on hand since an extended power outage may prevent you from withdrawing money from ATMs or banks.
  • Volunteer to check on elderly neighbors, friends, or relatives who may need assistance during the outage.
  • Wear layers of loose fitting, lightweight, warm clothing rather than one layer of heavy clothing. The outer garments should be tightly woven and water repellent. Never burn charcoal for heating or cooking indoors.
  • If you are using a gas heater or fireplace to stay warm, be sure the area is properly ventilated.
  • Arrange ahead of time with family, friends, or neighbors for a place to go if you have an extended outage. If you have nowhere to go, head to a designated public shelter. Text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area (example: shelter 12345)
  • Avoid opening the fridge or freezer. Food should be safe as long as the outage lasts no more than four hours.

Things to Know About Generators

The Federal Alliance for Safe Homes says:

  1. Do not run a generator inside a home or garage. Use gas-powered generators only in well-ventilated areas.
  2. Follow manufacturer’s instructions such as only connect individual appliances to portable generators.
  3. Don’t plug emergency generators into electric outlets or hook them directly to your home’s electrical system as they can feed electricity back into the power lines, putting you and line workers in danger.
  4. Consider purchasing and installing a standby home generator with an automatic on switch.

What to Do After a Power Outage

According to the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, you should follow the below tips once your power is restored:

  • When power comes back on, it may come back with momentary “surges” or “spikes” that can damage equipment such as computers and motors in appliances like the air conditioner, refrigerator, washer or furnace. Be sure to install a system of surge protection that consists of point-of-use devices and whole house surge protection.
  • When power is restored, wait a few minutes before turning on major appliances to help eliminate potential problems caused from sharp increases in demand.

How to Stay Safe While Shoveling

Thousands of Americans injure themselves while shoveling snow every year, with muscle and ligament injuries being the most common. Here are four stretches you can do before grabbing that shovel to help prevent injuries.

From digging out cars to clearing driveways and sidewalks, the snow needs to be shoveled, but doctors warn such strenuous activity could be dangerous and even fatal.

Here are seven precautions from Northwestern to stay safe and prevent heart attacks while shoveling:

  • Bundle up. Cold temperatures reduce circulation to the body’s extremities. Wear weather-appropriate, layered clothing and gloves to help maintain body temperature and circulation.
  • Start early. The longer snow sits on the ground, the more it compacts, making it denser. Removing compacted snow requires more exertion, placing stress on the heart. Snow is easier to shovel when it first falls.
  • Ease into it. As with any physical activity, your body needs to warm up to perform at its peak. Ease into shoveling and try not to do the entire job at once. Take breaks as needed.
  • Remain hydrated. The body needs hydration, even in cold weather. When shoveling snow, take frequent breaks and drink water regularly to prevent dehydration.
  • Avoid heavy eating. Eating a small meal before shoveling will provide a source of energy. However, digestion puts strain on the heart, so eating a large meal before any physical activity should be avoided. Additionally, don’t consume alcohol just before shoveling.
  • Don’t lift too much. Large loads of snow can be heavy and place strain on the heart, back and neck. Push instead of lifting, and use a small shovel, which encourages smaller loads of snow. If you must lift, avoid rounding your back, lift using your legs and buttocks, and clear four to six inches of depth at a time.
  • Listen to your body. The best indicator of whether or not snow shoveling is causing harm is to pay close attention to your body’s signals. If you begin to feel winded or overexerted while shoveling, take a break. These are signs that you’re doing more than your body can handle. If you experience shortness of breath, chest, throat or arm discomfort or tightness, or lightheadedness, you should rest and seek medical attention if the symptoms persist.

Taking Care of Pets in Frigid Weather

Cook County Animal and Rabies Control offered the following tips for pet owners:

  • Bring all pets indoors: All dogs and cats, whether they are acclimated to outdoor living or not, must be brought indoors during sub-zero weather. As the responsible caregiver of a pet, you should provide an indoor heated shelter for your animal. 
  • Salt and ice: Both salt and ice can irritate your dog’s footpads. If your dog will tolerate them, foot coverings are advised. If your dog will not tolerate foot coverings, avoid the salt when possible and wash the dog’s paws with warm water when you return home.  
  • Frostbite: Dogs and cats may have fur coats but they also have exposed areas that are susceptible to frostbite. Limit their time outdoors for waste elimination only. Walks should not exceed 10 minutes in sub-zero temperatures. Check their pads when you get home and wash with warm (not hot) moist towels. If you suspect frostbite on any extremity, including the nose or the tips of the ears, contact your veterinarian.
  • Keep them leashed: More pets become lost in the winter than any other season because snowfall can disguise recognizable scents that would normally help them find their way home. Prevent your pets from becoming lost by keeping dogs leashed on walks and, just in case you are separated from your pets, make sure their collars have up-to-date contact information and they are microchipped.
  • Be seen: Due to Daylight Savings, many of us are relegated to walking our dogs in the dark. Keep yourself and your dog are safe by wearing reflective gear (clothing, leash, collar, etc.) and keeping your dog close when walking on the street.
  • Properly secure potentially poisonous material, such as antifreeze: Antifreeze is extremely toxic to all living creatures. Keep antifreeze bottles out of the reach of animals and clean up all antifreeze spills immediately.
  • Be prepared: Winter brings extreme weather that can cause power outages. Have an emergency plan and make sure it includes your pets. Have an emergency kit with enough food, water and medication to last your pets at least five days. You may never need it, but if you do, you will be thankful you planned.

What about feral or wild animals?

  • Honk before starting your car: Feral cats and wild animals will seek refuge and warmth wherever they can. A car’s engine, for example, may provide a warm spot to “hole up” in sub-zero conditions. Drivers should honk their vehicle’s horn before starting the ignition to give a wakeup call to any critter that may be hiding.
  • Call officials if a wild animal enters your home: If an animal has chosen your attic, your garage or even space under a deck as refuge, close off access to the rest of the house and contact local officials for their removal. 

What if you see mistreatment?

While laws in some municipalities may require only that pet owners provide food, water and a shelter, an outside dog house may not be suitable during severe cold weather. All residents are urged to be alert to pets being left outside for extended periods and to call authorities if they see an animal that could be in danger.

Check In on Loved Ones and Neighbors

According to data from the state, 46% of individuals rely on people in their neighborhood for assistance within the first 72 hours of an emergency.

State officials advised people to check in with neighbors over the weekend either asking for or offering help.

“There are dangerous health conditions that can occur specifically in severe winter weather,” Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said. “It’s important to watch for signs of extreme cold. Knowing the warning signs of dangerously cold weather and the health conditions they can cause can help you stay safe and healthy.”


  • Here's a list of warming centers across Chicago.
  • To find a warming center near you in Illinois, click here.
  • Want to know when city of Chicago crews will come by to clear the snow from your street? Here's how you can track the city's plows and snow removal.
    • In 2012, the city of Chicago released “Plow Tracker,” which allows residents to track in real time which streets are being cleared of snow.
    • Plow Tracker can be found by clicking here. On the site, you can enter your address to locate plows near you.
  • Calling 311:
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