EASTERN NIAGARA HEALTHLINES: Protecting your heart in winter weather

Dr. Suresh Sofat


Winter is here and this season brings extra concerns for those with heart disease. Most physicians regularly advise their patients about the impact that cold weather has on cardiovascular health. Sudden changes in weather conditions, such as fluctuations in temperature, can affect those with heart disease, as well as our elderly population in general.

Our body’s response to the cold weather is to increase our heart rate and blood pressure. That in turn increases oxygen demands on the heart. When there is increased work or stress on the heart, sometimes that vigorous activity (such as shoveling snow) can lead to a plaque rupture if an individual has hardening of the arteries. Cold weather constricts 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.

If you need to go outdoors in cold weather, strive to avoid sudden exertion. Even walking through heavy, wet snow or snow drifts can strain a person’s heart, leading to chest pain or discomfort (angina pectoris) and an increased risk of heart attack.

If you are a winter sports enthusiast and accustomed to activity, it’s also important to take precautions to avoid hypothermia. Hypothermia means the body temperature has fallen below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. It occurs when your body can’t produce enough energy to keep the internal body temperature warm enough. Heart failure causes the majority of deaths in hypothermia. Symptoms of hypothermia include mental confusion, a lack of coordination, slowed reaction times, sleepiness and chills/shivering.

The elderly and those with heart disease are at increased risk for hypothermia, since when people age, their ability to maintain a normal internal body temperature often decreases. Children are also at risk. Both elderly and younger people are more insensitive to moderately cold conditions; they can sometimes suffer hypothermia without realizing they are in danger.

In addition to cold temperatures, high winds, snow and rain can steal body heat. Wind is especially dangerous, because it removes the layer of heated air from around your body. At 30 degrees Fahrenheit in a 30-mile wind, the cooling effect is equal to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Furthermore, dampness causes the body to lose heat faster than it would at the same temperature in drier conditions. It’s important to wear layers of clothing in these conditions to help trap the air between layers, forming a protective insulation. Don’t forget to wear a hat or head scarf. Heat can be lost through your head. 

Lastly, avoid drinking 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.

During the winter months, take the necessary steps to stay safe and warm. Always stay prepared and following sensible health and safety precautions. Don’t take chances with your health or the health of your family.

Suresh Sofat, M.D., specializes in internal medicine and cardiology in Lockport. Eastern Niagara Healthlines is a special feature by practitioners in the Eastern Niagara Health System.

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