ST. LOUIS – Cold weather is the most common health risk you encounter in the winter, but people often view the danger in the extreme as hypothermia or frostbite. However, a drop in temperature can affect your health, specifically your heart, in ways you may not expect.
The cold causes blood vessels to contract, which can raise blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. Angina, or chest pain due to coronary heart disease, can also worsen in winter when coronary arteries constrict in the cold.
Furthermore, your heart has to work extra hard to maintain a healthy body temperature, and winter wind can make this even more difficult because it causes the body to lose heat more quickly. If your body temperature drops below 95 degrees, hypothermia can damage the heart muscle. This can cause confusion, lack of coordination, and slow reaction. The risk of hypothermia has increased in children and the elderly.
Lifestyle changes, particularly physical activity, can impact your risk as well. People often find themselves doing more strenuous physical activity than they are used to, such as shoveling or walking through heavy snow.
Dr. Arun Venkat, a cardiologist at SSM Health DePaul Hospital, warns that the holiday season has also been showing to increase the level of stress hormones and the risk of heart attack or stroke. Practicing self-care around the holidays can help you manage your stress and minimize your risk. He suggests ways to prevent heart issues in the winter, such as:
- Avoid overexertion
- Stay hydrated
- Take frequent breaks
- Wear appropriate clothes – wear layers, and don’t forget a hat and gloves
- If you have a history of heart disease, avoid or limit vigorous shoveling
- Be careful in the dark or wind if it’s wet and icy – avoid falls
- In high altitudes like ski resorts, it’s very important to acclimate
Venkat also says COVID-19 can have a significant impact on your heart. As the pandemic rolls into the winter months, remember to wear a mask, avoid large gatherings, and practice social distancing.
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The SSM Health Medical Minute airs Wednesdays on News 11 at 7pm and FOX 2 News at 9pm.