Every year, exposure to cold kills hundreds of Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Cold also can exacerbate other health conditions and cause hypothermia and frostbite, which can lead to loss of fingers and toes or cause permanent kidney, pancreas and liver injury - even death, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).

In addition, severe winter weather causes numerous vehicle accidents and fatalities, and more than 52,000 house fires due to dangerous use of heating equipment, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

The keys to surviving severe winter weather are to prepare now, keep informed and stay off roads and inside a warm shelter during winter storms.

Here are preparation steps to take today, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the NWS.

  • Build a winter readiness kit for your vehicles and store the kit where you can reach it from inside the vehicle (i.e. not in a separate trunk).
  • Meet with your family to create an emergency plan. Pick two places to meet: a spot outside your home for an emergency and a place away from your neighborhood in case you can’t return home. Choose an out-of-state friend as your “family check-in contact” for everyone to call if the family gets separated. Discuss what you would do if advised to evacuate.
  • Keep up to date on weather. Sign up for local text/phone alerts and warnings with your local authorities. Consider purchasing a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Weather Radio with a battery backup, which receives warnings from the NWS.
  • Stock emergency supplies, including food, water and prescription medicine for the entire family (including animals) for at least three days.
  • Winterize and prepare your home ahead of winter weather.
  • Review your property insurance, and secure critical documents.
  • Be equipped to tend to any current or unexpected medical conditions your family members may have.
  • Identify a place nearby, like a local emergency shelter, where you can safely warm up should you lose heat in your home because of a utility outage.

During a storm

Once a storm hits, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the American Red Cross advise:

  • Find shelter right away, ideally by staying home and staying off the roads.
  • If trapped in your car, then stay inside. Never walk for help during a storm, as you can become quickly disoriented in wind-driven snow and cold. Get more tips if trapped in a vehicle during a winter storm.
  • Limit your time outside. If you need to go outside, then wear layers of warm clothing.
  • Watch for signs of frostbite and hypothermia. Frostbite causes loss of feeling and color around the face and extremities, numbness and waxy skin. Treatment is to go to a warm room and soak the frostbite area in warm (not hot) water. Do not massage or use a heating pad. Hypothermia is a dangerously low body temperature; below 95 degrees is an emergency and should be treated in the emergency department. Signs include: shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech and/or drowsiness. Treatment is to go to a warm room and warm the chest, neck, head and groin first. Keep the person dry and wrapped up in warm blankets, including the head and neck.
  • Avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. Only use generators and grills outdoors and at least 20 feet from windows. Get more generator tips here. Never heat your home with a gas stovetop or oven. Get more safe heating tips here.
  • Avoid overexertion, such as shoveling heavy snow, pushing a car or walking in deep snow. The strain from the cold and the hard labor may cause a heart attack, and sweating could lead to a chill and hypothermia.
  • Check on neighbors. Older adults and young children are more at risk in extreme cold.
  • Bring your companion animals indoors. Stock up on supplies to clean up after them (large plastic bags, paper towels and extra cat litter), particularly if they are used to eliminating outdoors.

By preparing ahead of time, and then staying off the road during severe winter weather, you can keep your family safe through the worst storms of the winter.