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Cold Weather and Heart Disease

By Nancy Larson

Updated October 23, 2008

(LifeWire) - Drinking hot apple cider, sitting by the fire and -- perhaps, surprisingly -- having a heart attack all have something in common: You're more likely to experience them in the winter.

Cold weather poses danger for those with heart disease, also known as coronary artery disease (CAD), for a variety of reasons. It can elevate heart rate, enhance the risk of clots and increase blood pressure.

Winter also raises your chances of getting the flu due to low humidity brought on by cold weather and indoor heating. It's an illness more apt to cause death among people with CAD, but if you come down with the flu, a cold or a cough, ask your doctor before taking any over-the-counter decongestants. Those containing pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine can raise blood pressure, which can increase your chances for heart attack.

Patients with heart disease and all older people should also be mindful of hypothermia, which happens when your body can't keep its internal temperature to at least 95 degrees. Hypothermia -- which can be fatal -- include signs such as clumsiness, confusion, sleepiness and shivering.

Take It Easy, Dress Warmly

Other cold-weather threats stem not so much from the weather itself, but from activities associated with it.

Just walking through snowdrifts can put stress on your heart. So you can imagine how much strain shoveling snow produces, especially if your heart is weakened. After heart surgery, patients are advised to abstain from shoveling snow for three months and to avoid all outdoor activities when the temperature or wind chill goes below zero degrees.

Taking the following precautions can help ward off winter hazards:

  • Get a flu shot.
  • When you have to brave the cold, layer your clothing and wear a hat or scarf, mittens or gloves and appropriate footwear.
  • If you must shovel, scoop fresh, not packed snow. Push, rather than lift, and fill the shovel to only half full or less. Stop when the exertion feels more than "somewhat difficult."
  • Avoid alcohol before going outdoors. It expands blood vessels in the skin, making you feel warmer while actually drawing heat away from organs.

Read more about reducing your risk for heart disease.


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"Cold Weather and Cardiovascular Disease." americanheart.org. 2008. American Heart Association. 10 Oct. 2008. <http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4570>

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"Exercise and Activity After Heart Surgery." uwhealth.org. 8 Aug. 2008. University of Wisconsin Hospitals. 10 Oct. 2008 <http://www.uwhealth.org/servlet/Satellite?cid=1103038156126&pagename=B_EXTRANET_HEALTH_INFORMATION%2FFlexMember%2FShow_Public_HFFY&c=FlexGroup>.

"Extreme Cold: A Prevention Guide to Promote Your Personal Health and Safety." bt.cdc.gov. 22 Mar. 2005. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. 10 Oct. 2008. <http://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/guide.asp>.

"Extreme Temperatures and High Altitudes -- Their Effects on the Heart." bhf.org.uk. Mar. 2008. British Heart Foundation. 10 Oct. 2008 <http://www.bhf.org.uk/faqs.aspx?qid=7777>.

Lowen, Anice, et al. "Influenza Virus Transmission Is Dependent on Relative Humidity and Temperature." Pathogens 3:10(2007):1470-76. 14 Oct. 2008 <http://www.plospathogens.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.ppat.0030151>.

LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Nancy Larson is a St. Louis-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in dozens of local and national print and online publications including CNN.com, The Weather Channel, Health magazine and The Advocate.

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