Article originally posted February 2021.
Winter can be tough on everyone – especially those living with heart conditions. Not only can prolonged exposure to the cold affect your cardiovascular health, but winter activities such as shoveling snow or driving in bad weather can cause added stress if you don’t pace yourself or ask for help. This winter, listen to your heart and take extra measures to protect yourself when the weather turns bitter.
During the winter, you may find yourself walking more briskly against subzero wind chills, high-stepping through snow drifts, chipping layers of ice from your windshield or shoveling heavy snow from the driveway. These activities can be exhausting and even dangerous, especially if you have heart disease.
The following symptoms may be indicative of a heart attack:
- Chest discomfort, which may feel like pain, pressure, fullness or squeezing.
This sensation can come and go.
- Discomfort in the upper body, including the arms, jaw, back or abdomen
- Palpitations, or feeling like your heart is fluttering, thumping, racing or skipping beats
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
- Nausea or vomiting
- Cold sweats
Rest often and don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you think you may be having a heart attack, call 911. Don’t die of doubt.
Exposure to Cold Temperatures
Individuals with heart issues can be more susceptible to conditions such as vasoconstriction and hypothermia. Vasoconstriction is a narrowing of the blood vessels, which can occur in cold weather and lead to an increase in blood pressure. In some cases, vasoconstriction can even reduce blood flow to the heart, increasing the risk for heart attack or stroke.
Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature falls below normal. This condition can affect people of all ages, especially those with medical conditions such as diabetes that decrease your body’s ability to regulate body temperature. In the early stages of hypothermia, your heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate increase. As body temperature continues to fall, these vitals begin to decrease. If left untreated, hypothermia can lead to irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia). The risk of cardiac arrest increases as the body’s temperature drops lower and lower.
- Drowsiness or fatigue
- Lack of coordination
- Confusion or memory loss
- Slurred speech
Dress appropriately and monitor yourself and loved ones for concerning symptoms.
Dressing warm is an important part of protecting yourself from the elements in the winter, but too many layers can become a problem during physical activity. If your body is unable to release heat while you’re on the move, it can cause your blood vessels to dilate, or expand. This can lead to a dangerous drop in blood pressure, especially for those with heart disease.
- Heavy sweating
- Dizziness or feeling faint
- Weak, rapid pulse
- Low blood pressure
- Muscle cramps
Try dressing in layers to help regulate body temperature. If you feel like you’re sweating while shoveling the driveway, go inside and take a break.
Poor Road Conditions and Limited Travel
If you’ve ever driven down a snowy or slick roadway, you know that it can be an anxiety-ridden experience. Don’t put added stress on your heart – plan ahead so you aren’t rushing out in bad weather to pick up something essential, such as your prescriptions. In addition, call your provider if you’re concerned about driving to an appointment in inclement weather. Your healthcare team may be able to meet your needs over the phone using telemedicine.
With the windows closed and a tendency to gather inside rather than out in the open air, respiratory illnesses – like the flu and COVID-19 – can spread quickly in the winter. If you come into contact with these viruses, heart disease may put you at an increased risk for severe illness.
Play it safe this winter and consider the following:
- Avoid crowds – including events, gatherings and public transportation
- Wear a mask that covers your mouth, nose and chin, and ask guests to do the same
- Practice social distancing
- Wash and sanitize your hands often
- Clean and disinfect shared surfaces, like doorknobs and countertops
- Avoid touching your face, nose and eyes with unwashed hands
- Practice self-care: sleep well, stay connected with loved ones and take time to relax
- Call your healthcare provider with any concerns
To learn more about FMC’s Heart and Vascular Care services, click here.
Sources: American Heart Association, Harvard Medical School, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Fairfield Healthcare Professionals Cardiology offers expert care to patients living with heart disease. If you have questions regarding cardiovascular health risks and prevention, speak with your healthcare team, including your primary care provider and cardiologist.