EASTERN NIAGARA HEALTHLINES: Cold weather and cardiovascular disease

Dr. James Ha

Every year, health care providers strive to remind their patients of the impact that cold weather has on cardiovascular health. Despite this, we have annual deaths in the Buffalo area that are secondary to winter conditions. Fluctuations in temperature and weather can have a significant impact on individuals who are elderly or have heart disease.

When the weather is cold, especially if there are high winds, it is recommended to remain indoors. If you must go outside, make the trip brief. 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. This in turn increases the oxygen demand of the heart. Increased stress on the heart from vigorous activity can lead to a plaque rupture if an individual has hardening of the arteries. The cold weather causes constriction of small arteries, requiring the heart to work harder to pump blood through the narrowed arteries. This reduces the supply of oxygen-containing blood to your heart muscle.

One example is associated with the first heavy snowfall. 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 consequently from the cold. Any individual with known or suspected heart disease, including high blood pressure, should avoid shoveling snow or using a snow blower.

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; and stay dry — wet clothing chills the body rapidly. Avoid excess perspiration, which will increase heat loss; that means 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-mph 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, promote heat loss and hasten the ill effects of cold body temperatures.

Beware 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 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, take the necessary steps to stay safe and warm. Be prepared and following sensible health and safety precautions.

James Ha, D.O., is a resident in Eastern Niagara Hospital’s Family Medicine Residency Program and practices at Eastern Niagara Family Medicine, 475 S. Transit St., Lockport. Eastern Niagara Healthlines is a bi-weekly feature by the Eastern Niagara Health System. Questions may be directed to Community Relations at 514-5505.