Is it OK to eat the first snow of the year?

Eating freshly fallen snow, often called the “first snow” of the season, is a magical winter tradition for many people. The sight of pristine, white snowflakes accumulating on the ground heralds the true arrival of winter. It’s only natural that some may be tempted to catch a few snowflakes on their tongue or scoop up a handful of snow to snack on.

But is eating snow actually safe? Or does this seemingly innocent winter tradition carry health risks that could outweigh the momentary magic?

The Appeal of Eating the First Snow

It’s easy to understand the appeal of tasting the first snowfall of the season. Here are some of the reasons people may feel compelled to eat new-fallen snow:

  • Childhood nostalgia – Eating snow can bring back happy memories of childhood winter fun
  • Natural curiosity – Snow looks and feels different from regular water, so people are curious about the taste
  • Attraction to purity – Fresh snow looks clean and pristine
  • Thrill seeking – It’s seen as a slightly daring or mischievous thing to do
  • Celebration of winter – Snow transforms the landscape, so eating it can be a way to mark the start of winter

Additionally, some believe that freshly fallen snow is safer or cleaner to eat than snow on the ground because it hasn’t been exposed to potential contaminants. Of course, as we’ll explore later, this perception doesn’t always match reality.

Potential Health Risks of Ingesting Snow

While eating a little bit of snow isn’t likely to harm most healthy people, it does carry some potential health risks – especially for those with compromised immune systems. Here are some of the main concerns with ingesting untreated snow:

Bacterial and Viral Contamination

One of the biggest risks with eating snow is the potential for contamination with dangerous bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Some potential contaminants include:

  • E. coli
  • Salmonella
  • Listeria monocytogenes
  • Campylobacter jejuni
  • Norovirus
  • Hepatitis A
  • Giardia

These pathogens can originate from a variety of sources, including animal waste, contaminated water sources, and general pollution. Even snow falling through relatively clean air can pick up some contaminants.

Chemical Pollutants

Outdoor snow is also susceptible to chemical contaminants in the surrounding environment, including:

  • Vehicle exhaust
  • Pesticides
  • Industrial emissions
  • Acids from atmospheric pollution

Ingesting significant amounts of snow contaminated by these pollutants is not safe, especially for children.

Physical Hazards

Snow may also contain physical contaminants like dirt, debris, particulate matter, or trash. Eating snow could introduce these into your body or cause you to choke on larger particles.

Factors that Increase Contamination Risk

Not all snowfalls are created equal when it comes to contamination risk. Here are some factors that can increase the chance of snow being harboring dangerous bacteria, viruses, or chemicals:


Snow in urban environments or near agricultural operations is more likely to be contaminated than snow in dense, rural forests. Snow near roadways and parking lots can also pick up pollution.

Weather Conditions Prior to Snowfall

Snow falling after extended periods of rainfall has a higher risk of contamination, as precipitation washes pathogens and pollutants from the surrounding environment into the snow.

Snow Consistency and Temperature

Wet, slushy snow that is near the melting point can absorb and concentrate contaminants more than powdery, frozen snow. Higher moisture content equals higher contamination risk.

Time Elapsed Since Snowfall

Fresh snow generally has lower levels of contamination than snow that has been sitting on the ground for several days or weeks. Over time, pollutants in the air and on the ground accumulate in the snow.

Amount of Fresh Snowfall

A light dusting of snow can actually have higher concentrations of pollutants than a big, heavy snowfall. More fresh precipitation helps dilute contaminants.

Ways to Reduce Infection Risk from Eating Snow

If you insist on eating snow, there are ways to reduce your risk of becoming sick from bacteria or viruses:

  • Consume it immediately after snowfall before contamination builds up
  • Avoid snow in urban areas and roadways where pollution accumulates
  • Avoid eating large amounts of snow, especially if it has sat on the ground for a while
  • Avoid yellow or discolored snow, which indicates the presence of pollutants
  • Consume fresh powder snow rather than wet, slushy snow that can harbor more bacteria
  • Avoid snow contaminated with visible debris or trash

However, the only way to completely eliminate the risk of illness is to avoid eating snow altogether.

Who is Most Vulnerable to Contaminants in Snow?

While eating snow is generally safe in small amounts for healthy people, some groups are more vulnerable to getting sick from contaminated snow. They should take extra precautions or avoid it altogether:

  • Children under 5 years old
  • Pregnant women
  • Elderly adults
  • Those with compromised immune systems
  • People taking medications that suppress immunity
  • Anyone with liver disease or kidney disease
  • Individuals with chronic illnesses like cancer or diabetes

Children often play in the snow and may be more likely to put it in their mouths. Their immune systems are also still developing. Older adults and those with chronic illnesses have a harder time fighting off infections as well, so they are at higher risk for complications.

Health Complications from Consuming Contaminated Snow

If you ingest snow contaminated with dangerous bacteria, viruses, or chemicals, here are some of the illnesses and effects you could experience:

Gastrointestinal Distress

Symptoms may include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps and pain
  • Fever

These are common side effects of pathogens like norovirus, rotavirus, E. coli, and salmonella. Viruses like hepatitis A can also cause liver inflammation.

Respiratory Infections

Illnesses such as influenza, adenovirus, or Legionnaire’s disease can sometimes be transmitted through snow. Symptoms may include:

  • Cough
  • Congestion
  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pneumonia

Chemical Toxicity

Consuming snow contaminated with pesticides, heavy metals, or other hazardous chemicals can cause:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Kidney or liver damage

Injury from Debris

Swallowing snow with bits of trash, dirt, gravel or other objects could potentially choke someone or cause mouth or throat injuries.

Cases of Illness Linked to Eating Snow

While most people suffer no harm from occasionally eating a little bit of snow, there are some documented cases of health hazards and gastrointestinal illness associated with ingesting larger amounts of contaminated snow:

1950s Alaska Snow Sickness Outbreaks

Between 1954 and 1961 in western Alaska, hundreds of indigenous people became mysteriously sick after consuming snow. Symptoms included nausea, sore throat, cramps, and diarrhea. Some needed hospitalization. Eventually, researchers linked the illness to snow contaminated with animal waste carrying salmonella, E. coli, and other bacteria.

2007 Norwegian Snow Outbreak

In 2007 in Norway, an outbreak sickened nearly 1,000 people who had consumed snow at various winter events and festivals. Symptoms were similar to the Alaska cases decades prior – vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain. The source was suspected to be snow contaminated by human sewage.

Individual Cases

Sporadic individual cases of illness have also been reported after eating large amounts of snow contaminated with animal waste, human waste, or chemicals:

  • 1980s – Woman in Canada developed diarrhea and cramps after ingesting several glasses per day of snow contaminated by eavestrough drainage
  • 1999 – Man in Italy contracted hepatitis A from eating dirty snow outside his home that contained traces of human feces
  • 2009 – American teenager diagnosed with methane and manganese poisoning after eating large quantities of discolored snow near his school over several months

Expert Opinions on Eating Snow

With potential health risks in mind, here are some expert perspectives on whether it’s truly safe to eat snow:

Centers for Disease Control (CDC)

“It is generally safe to eat snow or use it for drinking water. However, snow can contain dirt and microbes that can make people sick if consumed in large enough quantities. People should avoid yellow or discolored snow.”

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

“Fresh, clean snow itself is safe to ingest. However, snow can absorb dangerous pollutants from the air and ground. Eating large quantities or snow contaminated with chemicals, animal waste, or sewage introduces health risks.”

Public Health Canada

“While brief tasting of fresh snow is no cause for health concern, it is not advisable to eat large quantities. Snow can contain varying levels of contaminants, bacteria, and chemicals depending on location and environmental conditions prior to the snowfall.”

Is It Safe for Pets to Eat Snow?

Like their human owners, dogs and other pets often get the urge to eat snow. But is this a safe practice? Since pets spend more time outdoors and have the tendency to eat just about anything, vets caution that they may face higher risks from contaminants in snow. Here are some expert tips on pets and snow consumption:

  • Avoid letting pets ingest snow melt from roads, driveways, or sidewalks where de-icing chemicals accumulate
  • Prevent pets from eating large amounts of snow, especially if it has been sitting on the ground for a prolonged time
  • Monitor pets for signs of illness after snow eating like vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy
  • Consider having a water source available outside so pets don’t overindulge in snow
  • Pets with compromised immune systems or liver/kidney issues should avoid snow consumption

Ultimately, moderation is key when it comes to pets and snow ingestion. Brief snacking shouldn’t pose major problems for most healthy animals. But veterinarians strongly advise against letting pets eat heaping amounts of snow day after day.

Tips for Playing Safely in the Snow

Parents and pet owners can follow these precautions to safely enjoy winter snow activities with minimal health risks:

Supervise Children

Watch children closely and discourage them from eating snow, especially large amounts. Be aware that kids love to put snow in their mouths, so set ground rules.

Wash Hands Frequently

Use warm soap and water to wash everyone’s hands and faces after playing in the snow. This helps remove germs, chemicals, and contaminants.

Avoid Areas with Vehicle Pollution

Steer kids and pets away from eating snow near roads, parking lots, and driveways where car exhaust can accumulate.

Change Wet Clothes

Have kids wear waterproof gloves and snow pants. After outdoor snow play, remove any wet garments to avoid extended skin contact and chills.

Monitor Health After Snow Activities

Watch for any signs of illness in the hours to days following heavy exposure to snow. Look for fever, chills, vomiting, or diarrhea as possible symptoms.

Provide Clean Water

Give pets and kids access to fresh, uncontaminated water to prevent overconsumption of snow. This also helps them stay hydrated.


While eating a little bit of fresh snow generally isn’t harmful for most people, ingesting large quantities does introduce potential health hazards. Snow can harbor bacteria, viruses, parasites, and chemicals that could make you sick, especially those with compromised immune systems. Completely avoiding consumption of snow is the only way to eliminate the risk of illness.

That being said, the occasional taste or swallow of pristine new-fallen snow is unlikely to cause problems for healthy individuals. Just use caution when ingesting snow in urban environments or large doses. When in doubt, stick to clean water and admire winter’s beauty by observing rather than eating the snow!

Leave a Comment