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? Malissa J. Wood, 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.
“If people are doing a high-energy activity in the cold, like shoveling snow, and they’re breathing in cold air, that combination of factors can make them more prone to having heart attacks,” explains Dr. Wood.
“When it comes to the heart, cold weather affects both men and women pretty equally,” Dr. Wood says. “If you’re not physically active on a regular basis, you need to be cautious before you go out and shovel a bunch of snow because of the strain it can put on your heart.” It’s important that people take the time to warm up before beginning a physically demanding activity in cold temperatures.
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. “The combination of physical stress and the cold weather can cause these plaques to become unstable and tear or rupture,” Dr. Wood says.
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. “We recommend that our patients who have had heart attacks avoid shoveling big heavy loads of wet snow. Either do a small, controlled shovel motion—or better yet, have someone else do the shoveling,” Dr. Wood says.
The good news? “With enough preparation, people can really enjoy cold weather and can embrace cold weather activities,” says Dr. Wood. Getting outdoors in cold weather can even prevent seasonal depression.
Dr. Wood recommends the following tips to maintain your heart health in winter:
“Be cautious and pay attention to any symptoms that might arise. If you’re feeling any new, uncomfortable sensations in your chest, neck, or arms, call 911,” Dr. Wood says.