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Is eating snow dangerous?

By Chaffin Mitchell, AccuWeather staff writer

Many have tried snow ice cream, also known as snow cream. But exactly how risky is it to eat snow?

Of course, snow in its purest form is water. However, any number of things could be found in snow, including salt and chemicals used to melt snow on roads and sidewalks, fur, bacteria, urine and stool.

If you are going to eat any snow, fresh snow may be less contaminated because it has less opportunity to collect any of those but could still contain pollutants from the air. Smoke, fumes and exhaust could be lingering in the snow.

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"Any snow has the risk of containing pollution, dirt and microbes. Snow that has been on the ground for a couple of days may have chemicals from snow removal, dirt, microbes from the dirt and animal debris," Jennifer Johnson, Mayo Clinic Health System family medicine physician said.

The risks of eating snow in big cities and small cities or towns are different.

"Big cities have more people and more pollution (more cars, buildings, etc). Rural locations have more potential for agricultural chemicals in the ground that may leech into snow over time," Johnson said.

Johnson does not know of anyone who has had complications personally, but children have gotten sick from eating snow.

"...I have read case reports of kids getting unusual bacterial infections that were traced back to the environment and assumed to be connected to eating snow off the ground," Johnson said.

Most people have good immunity and don’t eat enough snow to affect them. Others may get an upset stomach and experience some diarrhea. Someone who eats a large amount of snow, or snow with a large amount of contamination, could be very sick, Johnson said.

Symptoms would be dependent on what is in the snow, for instance, whether bacteria versus chemicals are present.

"Someone with immune issues is more susceptible to the infections and may have fevers, chills, vomiting, diarrhea or unexplained weight loss," Johnson said.

Johnson said if you have ingested snow, it is important to let your doctor know, so they can run the appropriate tests.

"For most people, eating a small amount of fresh snow (a bite or two), or catching snowflakes on their tongue, is unlikely to cause serious problems. People who have significant health conditions and very young infants should be more cautious," Johnson said.

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