Frigid weather has finally hit the Black Hills and western South Dakota, with Christmas week temperatures dipping below zero for the first time this winter. This might be a good time to remember that cold weather can be hard on your heart.
Winter-related heart problems, especially while shoveling snow, are fairly common, said Whitney Stull, a cardiology advanced practice provider in Spearfish. If you have a history of heart disease or are out of shape, be cautious when you grab that shovel, she said.
A 2011 study, published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, found that 7 percent of the 11,500 snow-shoveling hospital emergency room visits each year were due to cardiac events.
When your body experiences extreme cold, your blood vessels constrict, your heart beats faster and your blood pressure rises. That’s part of your body’s natural defense. If you have a healthy heart and vascular system, these changes will indeed stave off hypothermia.
But if you have heart problems, even undiagnosed problems, the cold weather can combine with the exertion of shoveling snow to put a lot of pressure on your heart. The same can be said of any hard physical activity in extreme cold.
Aside from spending the winter in Florida, there are things you can do to avoid heart problems in cold weather. Whitney offers these tips:
- Warm up beforehand: By stretching, doing lunges or running in place, you can get your muscles loose and your heart pumping before you go outside.
- Dress in warm clothes: The shock to your system will be less. If you dress in layers, you can peel off clothing as your body warms up. And since most body heat dissipates through the top of your head, you can regulate your body temperature by donning and doffing a cap.
- Pace yourself: Take breaks, go inside occasionally and take your time.
- Push, don’t lift, the snow: It’s better for your back and for your heart if you’re not straining to lift shovelfuls of heavy, wet snow.
- Know the warning signs: Chest pain, jaw pain, neck pain, back pain, chest pressure and nausea could be signs of an impending heart attack or cardiac event. If you feel these symptoms, call 911 and let a family member know what’s happening.
Frigid weather can also affect your breathing. That blast of cold air entering your lungs causes your airways to restrict. Cold air is also much drier than warm air, so your bronchial tubes, nasal passages and other parts of your respiratory system don’t get lubricated the way they do in summer.
If you have asthma, bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), trouble can escalate quickly. To protect your lungs from the cold, cover your nose and mouth with a scarf. This will warm the air before it gets into your respiratory system.
Finally, if you struggle with weaknesses of the heart or lungs, you might even avoid going outside on the coldest of days.