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Your Heart in Winter

Tips to Manage Heart Health in the Cold

Cold weather is the most common health risk you encounter in the winter, but people often view the danger in the extreme, as hypothermia or frostbite. However, the drop in temperature can impact your health, specifically your heart, in ways you may not expect.

“Heart attacks are more common in winter,” Patricia Vassallo, MD, a cardiologist at Northwestern Medicine, explains. “There are several theories why heart attacks increase in winter.”

The main risk factor is biological: The cold causes blood vessels to contract, which can raise blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. Angina, or chest pain due to coronary heart disease, can also worsen in winter when coronary arteries constrict in the cold. Furthermore, your heart has to work extra hard to maintain a healthy body temperature, and winter wind can make this even more difficult because it causes the body to lose heat more quickly. If your body temperature drops below 95 degrees, hypothermia can damage the heart muscle.

Lifestyle changes, particularly physical activity, can impact your risk as well. People often find themselves doing more strenuous physical activity than they are used to, such as shoveling or walking through heavy snow.

The emotional stress of the holiday season has also been shown to increase the level of stress hormones and, consequently, the risk of heart attack or stroke. Practicing self-care around the holidays can help you manage your stress and minimize your risk.

Whether you’re impacted by all or just one of these factors, temperature, physical activity and emotional stress can contribute to an increased risk for heart attack during the winter. However, you can take extra precautions by following a few strategic tips from the cardiologists at Northwestern Medicine:

  • Dress for the weather. Wear layers and especially wear hats, gloves and heavy socks.
  • Come inside often. Give yourself breaks to warm up if you’re spending time outside in the cold.
  • Avoid excess alcohol. Alcohol can make you feel warmer than you really are and therefore can be particularly dangerous when you’re outside in the cold.
  • Do not shovel for long periods. You may also want to ask your doctor whether it’s safe for you to shovel at all.
  • Wash your hands frequently. Respiratory infections can increase the risk of heart attack.
  • Get help. If you have new symptoms of a heart condition, don’t delay getting help, even if it’s a holiday.

Heart Attack Warning Signs and Symptoms

Acute chest pain is the most common warning sign of heart attacks. However, symptoms can vary between men and women. While men occasionally report nausea or dizziness, women are significantly more likely to experience atypical symptoms, sometimes leading them to disregard the signs. Consult this infographic for more detail on the differences.

Staying heart healthy all year can keep you in the best possible shape when winter rolls around. These tips are always in season:

  • Stick to a heart-healthy diet.
  • Be sure to exercise regularly.
  • Know your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar numbers, and work with your physician to keep them in normal range.
  • Take steps to manage stress.
  • Listen to your body and if you feel different, see your physician.

Featured Experts

Patricia Vassallo, MD
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