How to Protect Your Heart Over the Winter Months - Crozer-Keystone Health System - PA

Published on December 13, 2016

How to Protect Your Heart Over the Winter Months

There’s a sharp spike in heart attacks and
cardiovascular problems during the winter.

The thermometer drops below freezing and a fresh blanket of new fallen snow covers your driveway. It’s time to head out with your snow shovel to clear a path. However, before you bundle up to keep warm for the task at hand, make sure you’ve taken all the necessary precautions to protect your heart as well.

There’s a sharp spike in heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems during the winter months. The cold weather can be especially hard on your body, particularly if you are older, already have heart disease and are not physically active. Knowing the warning signs of a heart problem is essential to staying safe and heading off a problem before it’s too late.

How the Cold Affects Your Heart

When the air temperature drops, your blood vessels and arteries narrow. This restricts blood flow and reduces the amount of oxygen available to your heart. Your heart must pump harder and faster to push blood through your narrowed arteries and blood vessels. As a result, your blood pressure and heart rate increase.

Adding a strenuous activity such as shoveling snow to this already dangerous situation can be a recipe for disaster. When you exercise – and snow shoveling is exercise since you’re lifting roughly 15 pounds with every stroke of the shovel – your muscles require additional energy and oxygen to keep up with demand. When you add this increased demand on top of the stress already placed on your heart by the cold weather, heart problems, heart attacks and strokes can occur.

The Warning Signs

If you’re exercising or working in the cold weather, you may mistake many of the warning signs of a heart attack as the results of your strenuous activity. However, you should never ignore any of the following symptoms. It’s important to stop and get help fast if you experience:

  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea or vomiting
  • Pain or discomfort in your chest
  • Jaw, neck or back pain
  • Discomfort or pain in your arm or shoulder
  • Shortness of breath

How You Can Stay Safe in the Cold

Some people should avoid cold weather and strenuous outdoor activity during the winter as much as possible. Anyone who has been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, as well as the elderly, should have someone else take care of snow shoveling and other winter work; the risks are simply too high.

However, the cold can reveal underlying and undiagnosed heart problems in seemingly healthy individuals, so everyone should take extra precautions when the temperature drops. To keep your heart healthy in the cold weather:

  • Always dress warmly to avoid spikes in your blood pressure
  • Avoid drinking alcoholic beverages before going outside
  • Stay well-hydrated since dehydration can increase your heart rate
  • Take frequent breaks from strenuous activities
  • Keep a close eye on potential signs and symptoms of a heart problem

If you think you may be at risk for heart disease and cardiovascular problems, ask your doctor to review your symptoms and risk factors. And if you do experience any of the common symptoms of a heart attack while outside in the cold, seek immediate medical attention.

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