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Health & Wellness

How the Cold Affects Your Heart

By Ochsner Lafayette General
February 18, 2021

When winter arrives and the temperature drops, our minds gravitate towards taking care of things like pipes, plants and pets. What many people fail to realize is that colder weather also brings about an increased risk of heart issues, so this is also a time to protect yourself and your loved ones!

Studies have shown that the number of heart attacks increases during the colder months of the year. A nationwide study published in 2018 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found a higher incidence of myocardial infarction, or heart attacks, in Sweden on days with low air temperature, low air pressure, high winds, and shorter sunshine duration.

Cold weather can cause your arteries to constrict. During normal temperatures, your body will perform vasodilation when you are physically active — your arteries will open or widen to provide more blood throughout your body. But during colder temperatures, your blood flow can be reduced as your arteries and blood vessels shrink. This can mean your heart has to work harder due to a rise in blood pressure and pulse. Additionally, when it’s cold outside, platelets are more prone to abnormally aggregate which can cause clots. Throw in elevated heart rates due to activity and this can spell trouble for some people.

Doctors have also drawn a connection between cold weather and heart attacks which are triggered by strenuous activities like skiing or shoveling snow. This relationship is particularly dangerous for people who suffer from coronary or cardiovascular disease, but can even affect people who have not previously been treated for heart issues.

Strenuous activity can be anything from that New Year’s resolution workout routine to the annual family ski trip to hunting or even exerting yourself at a chilly Mardi Gras parade. Doctors recommend that some patients with a significant cardiac history avoid outdoors cold-weather activity all together. Below are some ways to protect yourself in the colder months.

  • Dress in layers of clothing. This traps air between layers, forming a protective insulation.
  • Wear a hat or head scarf. Up to 30% of body heat is lost through your head.
  • Keep your hands and feet warm as they also tend to lose heat rapidly. Exposed hands, ears or any other body part will result in constricted blood flow to these appendages, increasing the risk of frostbite.
  • Avoid drinking alcoholic beverages before going outdoors or while outside. Alcohol gives an initial feeling of warmth, because blood vessels in the skin expand. Heat is then drawn away from the body's vital organs resulting in a net loss of heat.
  • Stay dry. Dampness causes the body to lose heat faster than it would at the same temperature in drier conditions.
  • Know your risk factors. Talk to your doctor about your family history and stay up to date on appropriate health screenings.

The winter is a wonderful season, and it’s important to take advantage of the activities which you can only do at this specific time of the year. For those of us in the South, it’s also a welcome reprieve from the hotter temperatures we experience for most of the year! Keep the tips above in mind next time the mercury drops, and your heart will thank you.

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