Whether you’re spending the day skiing in fresh powder or going for a sub-zero walk with the dog, being unprepared for cold weather can be dangerous for your health. You may be familiar with winter health risks, like hypothermia and frostbite, but did you know that cold weather can actually affect your heart, too?
Nandita Scott, MD, a Mass General Brigham cardiologist and co-director of the Corrigan Women’s Heart Health Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, discusses the effect cold weather has on your cardiovascular health and what you can do to protect your heart when the temperatures drop.
Cold weather causes the blood vessels in the heart to constrict, which raises your blood pressure. Your heart also has to pump harder and expend more energy to maintain your body temperature, especially if you’re not dressed warmly enough. If your extremities, like your legs and arms, are exposed to the cold, the sudden changes in temperature can make the arteries spasm.
“Breathing in cold air can put a greater strain on your heart and lungs. In addition, this is often a time where many are doing high-energy activities such as shoveling snow, at a level of exercise they may not be used to,” explains Dr. Scott. This combination of factors can make people more prone to having heart attacks.
Cold weather affects both men and women equally. Be sure to take the time to warm up before beginning a physically demanding activity in cold temperatures. Warming up is especially important for people who aren’t physically active on a regular basis.
If you have a pre-existing heart condition, you also may be at greater risk for a cold-related heart attack or medical incident. People with coronary artery disease, for example, may have buildup of a substance known as plaque in their arteries. These plaques can become unstable, tear, or rupture due to the combination of physical stress and cold weather.
If you have concerns about your heart health in the winter, be sure to talk to your primary care provider (PCP), who may suggest that you see a cardiologist. “For those with heart disease, we recommend that someone else do your shoveling. If that’s not possible, use a light shovel, clear small areas only, and take frequent breaks,” says Dr. Scott.
The good news? “There are safe ways to enjoy our environment throughout the year. Remaining active year round is ideal for your overall health, including heart health and mental health. I would recommend discussing with your doctor the safest way for you to do that,” Dr. Scott says. Getting outdoors in cold weather can even prevent seasonal depression.
Dr. Scott recommends the following tips to maintain your heart health in winter:
“If you feel any new and uncomfortable sensations in your chest, arms, and even neck that persist, it’s best to call 911 and be evaluated,” says Dr. Scott.