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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Here's How Cold Weather Affects Your Heart

Posted By: Advancing Care

As temperatures start to drop, many people look forward to days practicing winter sports and enjoying cozy nights by the fire. But winter weather comes with unpredictable challenges, especially for individuals with cardiovascular conditions. Here’s how chilly temperatures can affect your cardiovascular system and how to protect yourself from a medical emergency.

Couple in cold weather

Your heart works harder

When you’re outside in cold weather, your body responds by narrowing your blood vessels and arteries to conserve heat. This restriction of blood flow may limit the delivery of oxygen to the heart, and the heart must pump harder to circulate blood through the narrow blood vessels. “If you have a heart condition, you may feel chest tightness or pain when performing physical activities outdoors, such as walking in the cold weather,” says Cary Hirsch, MD, Co-Director of the Active International Cardiovascular Institute at Good Samaritan Hospital.

Your heart rate and blood pressure increase

As a result of peripheral vasoconstriction, your blood pressure tends to increase. Your heart rate also tends to increase in cold weather as a way to keep the body warm. This puts additional strain on your heart and puts people with existing heart conditions at higher risk for heart attack, stroke and CHF (congestive heart failure).

Your lungs work harder

Many people are familiar with the uncomfortable burning sensation of breathing in cold air, especially during strenuous activity. “Winter weather can make it harder to breathe, which in turn requires your lungs to work harder and also puts extra stress on your heart,” says Dr. Hirsch.

Your likelihood of clotting increases

In cold weather, your body’s clotting factors become more active, increasing your risk of forming blood clots in your arteries. This increases the risk of plaque rupture, which results in heart attack and stroke.

Your body temperature drops

Cary Hirsch, MD
Cary Hirsch, MD

If you’re not properly dressed for cold weather, your body temperature may drop below 95 degrees Fahrenheit — a condition called hypothermia. If you experience hypothermia, it can affect the function of your heart, nervous system and other organs. It can cause PAF (paroxysmal atrial fibrillation).

How to protect your heart in winter weather

“It’s important to be mindful of physical exertion in cold weather, especially if you have an existing heart condition,” says Dr. Hirsch. If you’re going outside in cold temperatures, be sure to:

  • Dress appropriately with plenty of layers of warm clothing, hats, gloves and scarves
  • Take frequent breaks to go inside, warm up and assess how you feel
  • Avoid alcohol immediately after being outside—it can increase your sensation of warmth and underestimate the strain your body is feeling in the cold
  • Keep up with medications and management of existing heart conditions, and ask your doctor before spending significant time outside in the cold
  • Learn the heart attack warning signs: chest discomfort, lightheadedness, nausea or vomiting, discomfort in the arm or shoulder, shortness of breath and jaw, neck or back pain
  • Check with your physician before shoveling snow

If you’re concerned about your heart health this winter, make an appointment with one of the cardiologists at Good Samaritan Hospital or Westchester Medical Center.

Cardiology Services at Westchester Medical Center

Cardiac Programs at Good Samaritan Hospital