If you have coronary heart disease, the recent cold can be especially challenging. You may suffer angina, or chest pain, and some research indicates there’s an increased risk of heart attack. But if you take a few precautions, you can have a safe and healthy winter.
Cold weather stresses the cardiovascular system because of how your body reacts to it. The blood vessels in your skin constrict, your breathing is shallow, and your blood thickens slightly—all of which can lead to chest pain if you have heart disease.
Because your arteries tighten in the cold, your blood flow slows and that reduces the amount of oxygen to your heart. Meanwhile, your body taxes itself as it tries to obtain oxygen and keep warm.
Lifting a shovel heavy with snow, even walking through deep snow or drifts can strain your heart because it has to work harder to maintain your body’s core temperature. In addition to the cold, the American Heart Association notes that you can lose body heat to high winds, snow, and rain.
So before you try to exercise outdoors, shovel snow, or simply take a walk in the cold, learn how to protect yourself. Start by asking your doctor what cold-weather activities are safe for you. Then take these precautions:
Wear layers of clothing so air gets trapped between the layers and insulates you.
Cover your head, hands, and feet as they tend to lose heat rapidly.
Don’t drink alcohol before going outdoors because it causes blood vessels in the skin to expand, drawing away heat from your organs.
If you’re not conditioned to the cold, take it slow, for example, when shoveling snow.
Don’t eat a big meal before going outside or coming back in. Digestion causes your heart to work hard.
And if you’re feeling signs of trouble in spite of taking precautions, don’t delay. Call 911 to get help right away.
Mark D. Etter, M.D., is board-certified in internal medicine, cardiovascular disease, and nuclear cardiology and has been published in the Journal of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science and the American Journal of Physiology. A Lancaster native, he earned his medical degree from The Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine. He was an intern and resident at the University of Rochester's Strong Memorial Hospital and a fellow in cardiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical College Presbyterian Hospital.