cold weather and cardiovascular disease

Cold Weather and Cardiovascular Disease

For many people, the thought of walking through a winter wonderland is enough to evoke nostalgia and put a smile on their faces. Winter brings lower temperatures and, in some parts of the country snow, and ice. For most people this is no problem. 

However, if you have cardiovascular disease you should know how the colder weather will impact your heart and overall health. Activities that place exertion on the cardiovascular system should be greatly limited during the winter months, especially activities such as shoveling snow and ice. Even simpler activities, such as wading through mounds of snow, can place a strain on the heart.

How Does Cold Weather Impact the Heart? 

During the winter months, many people enjoy engaging in outdoor activities like skiing, sledding, shoveling snow, and ice skating. There is nothing wrong with engaging in such activities, but if you have heart disease, they can be dangerous if you do not take basic precautions. 

Cold weather makes the heart work harder to keep the body warm. In low temperatures, your blood vessels constrict so the heart can focus on sending blood to the brain and other important organs. During the cold months blood clots can also form which can result in a heart attack or stroke.

The Dangers of Hypothermia

The body must be conditioned to withstand the heavy physical stress associated with many outdoor winter activities. Unfortunately, most people do not have such conditioning, so caution should be exercised when performing outdoor activities, especially for those suffering from heart disease. Individuals who don’t take basic precautions can expose themselves to hypothermia.

When the body’s temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) hypothermia can begin to set in. When the body cannot produce enough energy to warm itself the potentially deadly condition can take hold. 

Symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • Slowed bodily reactions
  • Lack of coordination
  • Shivering
  • Sleepiness
  • Mental confusion

Elderly individuals and children are considered high-risk in regards to hypothermia because they often have impaired mobility or a limited ability to communicate how they physically feel. Older individuals also have less subcutaneous fat and a diminished ability to feel temperature which makes it difficult to notice when symptoms of hypothermia begin to appear.

Winter Weather Conditions and Your Health

In addition to colder temperatures, snow, rain, and high winds can also lower the body’s temperature. Wind can be especially dangerous because it can eliminate the layers of warm air that circulate around your body. 

In a 30-mile per hour wind in 30-degree surroundings, the cooling effect is equal to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Individuals who are wet will notice the effects of cold air quicker than those who are dry.

To reduce the effects of cold weather conditions, it is important to dress appropriately. To remain warm and comfortable, you should wear layers of clothing. Layering is effective because it allows warm air to collect between the layers of clothing, forming a shield of protective insulation. 

Heat is lost through your head, so it is wise to wear a hat on the cooler days. Ears, hands, and feet are also extremely prone to frostbite. Earmuffs, gloves, and warm shoes will always come in handy during the winter months.

Staying Safe While Shoveling Snow

If you live in an area where it snows during the winter, you may be tempted to shovel snow from time to time. There is nothing wrong with this, but if you suffer from cardiovascular disease you will need to take precautions to reduce your risk of health problems. 

Before shoveling snow, be sure to take the following measures:

  • Learn CPR. If you are with someone who suffers from heart disease, knowing CPR can be a life-saver. Hands-only CPR is more effective and easier to perform. If an adult collapses from exertion, immediately contact 911 and begin pushing hard and fast in the middle of their chest until help arrives.
  • Consult a doctor if you have any medical problems, such as heart disease or diabetes before doing any physical labor. This advice is especially important if you intend to exercise more than usual or perform more physical labor than usual.
  • Be aware of hypothermia. To lower your chances of getting hypothermia, layer your clothes, and wear a hat.
  • Avoid alcohol before any physical activity. Alcohol can give a false sensation of warmth, which makes it difficult to notice if hypothermia begins to set in.
  • Take breaks when shoveling snow. Give yourself time to rest and recuperate during any outdoor activity.
  • Learn the signs of a heart attack. Even if you are not sure if you are having a heart attack, call 911 immediately. It can save your life.

By taking the measures listed above, you can still shovel snow even if you suffer from heart disease.

Winter Months and the Flu

During the winter months, your chances of contracting the flu (influenza) will increase. Flu can be more impactful for people with heart conditions, but there are steps you can take to avoid catching the flu, like getting the flu vaccine. 

Flu symptoms can also impact any medications you may be on, so you should be aware of the symptoms. Common flu symptoms include runny nose, sore throat, coughing, body aches, chills, headaches, weakness, and congestion.

It is also important to understand that the flu can evolve into pneumonia, which can be deadlier. Many basic flu symptoms can be remedied with over-the-counter medicine, but if you begin to experience severe symptoms, you will want to contact a physician or call 911 immediately. You could have pneumonia.

If you have a heart condition or you are over the age of 65 you should talk to your physician about the flu vaccine. The vaccine is free with most insurance plans so there may be no cost to you.

Enjoy Your Winter Safely

If you have heart disease, it is possible to have a fun and fulfilling winter. By taking the precautions listed above, you can lower your chances of having a heart attack or suffering from a host of other health problems. 

Enjoy your winter – just remember to stay safe.

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