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How the Cold Winter Weather Affects Our Heart Health

February 8, 2019

As the winter months persist, we often wonder what kind of toll these bone-chilling temperatures take on the body, and how we should healthily adjust to them. Sanford J. Gips, MD, a Heart House cardiologist affiliated with the Jefferson Health Heart and Vascular Network, shares how our cardiovascular system is affected by the cold and what precautions we should take before heading outdoors.

The body’s normal response to extreme cold is to constrict blood vessels, which keeps your core temperature warm and helps prevent hypothermia. While this mechanism is good for the skin, it can be dangerous for the heart.

“In individuals with known heart disease, or partial blockages of the heart arteries, this ‘normal’ response of blood vessel spasms can cause serious blood flow complications,” said Dr. Gips. “These spasms may damage the blood vessels, increasing the risk for a heart attack.”

In addition, shivering not only burns a lot of energy and constricts the blood vessels; it also raises your blood pressure — another heart attack trigger.

“Heart attacks are more frequent during the winter,” said Dr. Gips. “This is mainly because people are doing more dangerous activities outdoors.”

Cold weather may also result in weather-induced asthma attacks, caused by bronchospasms (or spasms in the airways), which can subsequently affect the heart.

“This is why we tell people to take small, shallow breaths, and to limit time speaking if they are out in the cold,” explained Dr. Gips.

As people involve themselves in strenuous outdoor activities, such as shoveling snow, extra strain is put on the heart and these effects worsen.

“People have the tendency to hold their breath and ‘bear down,’ as if they were lifting weights,” Dr. Gips said. “This is actually the worst thing you can do, because when you ‘bear down’ and hold your breath, there is a very sudden rise in blood pressure.”

In addition, if you’re spending long periods of time outdoors trying to finish this task, your body is working harder to protect you from the cold. Eventually these mechanisms are overcome, putting you at high risk for hypothermia.

There are simple precautions that both individuals with and without heart disease should take before going outside in the cold, such as minimizing the time of exposure, taking shallow breaths and wearing something over your mouth to warm up the air you’re breathing in and out. In terms of outdoor work, all individuals should avoid ‘bearing down.’

“If you have known heart disease,” continued Dr. Gips, “we strongly urge you not to exert yourself in this way. Do everything you can to find somebody to clear the snow for you.”

And if you’re having trouble deciphering if it’s cold enough to be dangerous, choose to play it safe.

“As a general rule, you’re not going to experience cold-induced asthma attacks or blood vessel spasms until the temperatures reach below freezing,” said Dr. Gips. “However, for someone with significant heart disease, there is no single temperature cutoff signifying if it is safe or unsafe.”