Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

January 16, 2014

HealthLines

By Judy Cummings
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Winter is here and we have just experienced a severe winter storm. Sudden changes, such as the cold weather we endured last week, as well as the ups and downs in temperature, can have a significant impact on individuals who are elderly or have heart disease. 

When the weather is extremely cold, especially if there are high winds, the best bet is to stay indoors. If you do need to go out, make your trip as brief as possible. Exposure to cold temperatures can cause serious or life-threatening health problems, including cardiac complications.

The body’s response to the cold is to increase heart rate and blood pressure, and that in turn increases the oxygen demand of the heart. When there is increased work or stress on the heart, sometimes that vigorous activity can lead to a plaque rupture if there is hardening of the arteries. The cold weather constricts the small arteries and your heart must work harder to pump blood through the narrowed arteries, therefore reducing the supply of oxygen-containing blood to your heart muscle.

A classic example is associated with the first heavy snowfall of the year. Individuals who shovel may be unaccustomed to this exertion. Some may experience attacks of chest pain called “angina” or may collapse with a heart attack because of this exertion, combined with the increased heart rate and blood pressure from the cold.

The Cardiac Services department at Eastern Niagara Hospital recommends the following:

• Dress warmly and stay dry: To protect health and safety in the cold,

consistently wear a hat or other head covering, use a scarf or knit mask to cover face and mouth, wear sleeves that are snug at the wrist, wear mittens (they’re warmer than gloves), wear several layers of loose-fitting clothing, wear water-resistant coat and shoes, stay dry — wet clothing chills the body rapidly.

Avoid excess perspiration, which will increase heat loss, so remove

extra layers of clothing if too warm

• Understand wind chill: As the speed of the wind increases, it can carry heat away from your body much more quickly. For example, at 30 degrees Fahrenheit in a 20-mile per hour wind, the cooling effect is equivalent to calm air at 4 degrees.

• Avoid alcohol: Don’t drink alcoholic beverages before going outdoors or when outside. Alcohol will give an initial feeling of warmth, but this is caused by expanding blood vessels in the skin. It will slow the heart and hasten the ill effects of cold body temperatures.

• Hypothermia: Hypothermia means the body temperature has fallen below normal. It occurs when your body can’t produce enough energy to keep the internal body temperature warm enough.

Symptoms include lack of coordination, mental confusion, slowed reactions, shivering and sleepiness. If this hypothermia is suspected, begin warming the individual slowly and seek immediate medical assistance. Arms and legs should be warmed last because stimulation of the limbs can drive cold blood toward the heart and lead to heart failure.

Never ingest anything with caffeine, a stimulant, as this can cause the heart to beat faster and hasten the effects the cold has on the body.

When winter temperatures drop significantly below normal, staying safe and warm can be a challenge. When you do go out, being prepared and following sensible health and safety precautions can make a difference between risking a dangerous excursion and experiencing a safe adventure.

Judy Cummings is the director of Cardiac Services at ENH’s Lockport site. Eastern Niagara HealthLines is a special feature to the Union-Sun & Journal by the Eastern Niagara Health System’s community relations department. For questions or more information, call 514-5505.