Does the cold weather pose a risk to your heart?

While most people are familiar with common health dangers of the extreme cold like hypothermia and frostbite, some health dangers are less widely known.

For those with cardiovascular disease, the cold weather can pose an additional risk to their heart.

“When the temperature drops, our body reacts to keep us warm and prevent losing heat,” says Dr. Neal Sawlani, a structural heart cardiologist with Advocate Heart Institute at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill. “In order to do this, our blood vessels narrow, and that causes the workload and strain on our heart to increase. If it’s too cold, this can lead to coronary issues, chest pain and an increased risk of cardiac arrest.”

Another danger during the winter months: snow shoveling.

You may have heard of heart attack snow, and it’s not a myth. Some snow is so wet and heavy that it can be dangerous for certain individuals.

People who are at high risk for heart disease or have a pre-existing heart condition need to take precautions to mitigate the danger.

“In addition to the narrowing of the blood vessels, which increases the strain on your heart, lifting a large amount of heavy, wet snow increases one’s heart rate and oxygen demand,” explains Dr. Sawlani. “This combination can be lethal in a person with pre-existing heart disease.”

Dr. Sawlani offers these tips to minimize the dangers of winter weather on your heart:

  • Dress for the weather. Layer up, even if you don’t feel cold.
  • Wear a scarf. Covering your mouth warms the air going into your lungs.
  • If you have heart issues, check with your doctor before shoveling snow. If they clear you to shovel, push the snow – don’t lift it, and avoid alcohol or a heavy meal before the strenuous task.
  • Avoid alcohol before you go outside. Even though it can make you feel warm, it increases your heart rate and constricts blood vessels, which is a recipe for disaster with the extreme cold.
  • Listen to your body. If you have chest pain, discomfort, nausea, shortness of breath or extreme fatigue when shoveling snow or when outside in extreme temperatures, check with your doctor. This could be a sign of undiagnosed heart disease.

Find out your risk for heart disease by taking our simple and easy Heart Risk Assessment.

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