Temperatures have officially dropped in most parts of the country, and some areas have even seen major snowstorms this winter. Of course, one of the most magical parts about those picturesque flurries is getting to play in it: stomping through the fluffy mounds, snowball fights, and catching snowflakes on your tongue as they gracefully fall from the sky.
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Can eating too much snow be harmful? Doctors explain what snow is made out of and whether it’s safe to eat, plus what can happen if you go overboard.
Of course, there will always be the playful folks (and blissful children) who end up eating a fistful of the stuff. Some people even like to make ice cream out of snow, and there are countless recipes online that can tell you exactly how to do it.
But is it really safe to eat snow, even if it looks undisturbed? We asked doctors and a meteorologist for their opinions.
What is snow made of, exactly?
In a pure form, “snow is just frozen water,” says Susan Besser, M.D., a primary care physician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. However, she points out that snow can be mixed with various substances, including debris.
“The bottom line is the water that makes up snow comes from evaporated water that rises from the Earth’s surface,” explains Mary Scarzello Fairbanks, a meteorologist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admistration. “In snow, you can find traces of water from rivers, lakes, or oceans around the world.”
But it’s not just made of water. “Snow contains droplets that will hold onto pieces of dust, tiny bacteria, or other things floating in the air,” Fairbanks says. The makeup of snow will be influenced by what’s happening in the atmosphere, she explains, and that include impurities like aerosol particles, nutrients, and pollutants.
So, is it safe to eat snow?
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There’s no official snow-eating safety guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, the CDC does note that it’s not a good idea to eat snow if you get stranded (say, in your car or on a hike) because it can lower your internal body temperature—and you want to stay warm for as long as you can.
Here’s the good news: If you eat a little snow at home because a storm has passed and you’re having fun, it’s really not a huge deal. “There really aren’t any snow-eating related illnesses that I am aware of,” Dr. Besser says.
That said, the amount you eat matters. “It is safe in small quantities,” says Diane Calello, M.D., medical and executive director of New Jersey Poison Information and Education System and associate professor of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “A small amount is non-toxic.” (Think: taking a bite out of a snowball.)
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But “it’s not great to make a meal out of it,” Dr. Calello says. Depending on what’s in your snow, you could end up with an upset stomach, vomiting, diarrhea, or possibly even an infection if you eat too much. Still, she stresses “that would take a lot of snow.”
Most importantly, go for clean snow if you’re going to have a taste—“white, just fallen. Not grayish-dirty snow and, of course, not yellow snow or anything that appears to contain animal droppings.”
Bottom line: If you want to catch snowflakes on your tongue or even lick a snowball made from newly fallen snow, you’ll probably be okay.
Just don’t go overboard. “Everything in moderation—even snow,” Dr. Calello says.
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