Cold Weather and Cardiovascular Disease

cold weather and cardiovascular disease

With colder weather approaching, it is important to note the particular impact of dropping temperatures on the cardiovascular system. Heart attack is the leading cause of death in the U.S. for men and women throughout the year. The probability of heart attacks, angina and other heart-related problems increases as temperatures decrease.  Knowing about the link between cold weather and cardiovascular disease can save lives.

What Cold Weather Does to the Cardiovascular System

Cold weather can cause blood vessels and arteries to constrict, thus making the heart work harder to pump oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. This constriction may cause angina, or chest pain, that can also spread to the shoulders, arms or neck. Angina is a symptom of several heart-related issues, including coronary heart disease. It can also cause a spike in blood pressure.

The risk of ischemic stroke rises by 19 percent during winter among those who suffer AFib (atrial fibrillation), according to the American College of Cardiology. When AFib occurs, the heartbeat fibrillates (quivers) and does not move blood properly from the atria to the heart’s lower chambers, called ventricles. In any weather, AFib can increase the risk of stroke up to five times. An ischemic stroke happens when an obstruction occurs in a blood vessel supplying blood to the brain.

Hypothermia is another risk for the cardiovascular system. This occurs when body temperature gets dangerously low, as it can when subjected to cold weather for an unusual length of time. Hypothermia causes the heart, nervous system and other organs to function improperly and may lead to heart failure or death. Symptoms for hypothermia include weak pulse, slurred speech, shivering and confusion.

Outdoor Winter Activities Increase Risk

The image of a sudden heart attack striking someone who is shoveling snow may sound stereotypical but it is not incorrect. The strenuous activity of shoveling definitely increases risk. But it’s not the only potentially dangerous activity. Yard work, outdoor exercise programs, such as running or jogging, or hustling about rapidly are all activities that could increase cardiovascular risk. If a person is not used to physical activity, that adds a potentially dangerous element to all of these activities.

Avoiding Cold Weather Triggers

There are ways to decrease the stress of cold weather on the cardiovascular system. First, knowing if any problems already exist by having regular physical examinations helps. Also, conferring with a physician or cardiologist prior to beginning or continuing any outdoor exercise program is advisable.

As obvious as it sounds, dressing as warmly as possibly when it is cold is advisable. Dressing in layers and making sure the head and neck are covered help maintain body warmth. Additionally, taking breaks frequently during strenuous activity such as exercising or shoveling snow helps. The breaks decrease the risk of over-exertion. Dehydration is another problem often overlooked in cold weather. It is important to make sure to drink water to avoid it.

There are also preventable methods that can be taken before going out into the cold. Steering clear of alcoholic beverages is paramount among them. Because alcohol can provide a false feeling of warmth within the body, it may lead to hypothermia more quickly.  Additionally, eating a large meal soon before cold weather activity should also be avoided.

Smoking is especially dangerous in cold weather, as is drinking coffee just before outside activity. Both increase blood pressure and heart rate, risk factors for heart disease.

Finally, listening to the body during exertion in cold weather is imperative. Chest pain, lightheadedness, shortness of breath and dizziness mean that all activity should stop immediately and medical attention is necessary.

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