When you look out the window and see that classic winter wonderland scene, remember: that fluffy snow and those sparkling icicles could increase your risk of a heart attack or stroke. Sorry for the mood killer.
Actually, it's not necessarily the snow and ice -- it's the cold weather, and how you take care of your body during that weather -- that can cause heart problems.
This is especially true for people who already have heart disease. "The winter season is the most vulnerable time for a cardiovascular patient," says Abby Ferriola, BSN, RN, PCCN, a heart and vascular nurse navigator at Chester County Hospital. "The cold weather can put a strain on the heart, and people with a history of heart disease may be more susceptible to the effects of this strain."
Here are 7 things you can do during the winter to protect your heart.
1. Shovel Snow with Caution
In cold weather, your heart is already working harder than usual. Adding strenuous work on top of that -- like shoveling snow -- can put too much stress on your heart.
"If you've had heart problems in the past, we stress talking to your health care provider about whether you are ready to shovel snow. It is a high exertion activity that not only increases your heart rate, but may raise your blood pressure and cause your blood vessels to constrict, reducing oxygen to the heart. This combination could trigger a heart attack," adds Agnes Friedberg, BSN, RN, CCRN, a heart and vascular nurse navigator at Chester County Hospital.
Once you've talked to your health care provider and have been given the green light, make sure you're being safe.
If possible, it's also a good idea to shovel when someone else is home. And it's even better if they know Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR).
2. Stay Warm
Cold temperatures, snow, and high winds steal your body heat and drop your internal temperature. The average normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, but a temperature is generally considered healthy if it's between 97 degrees and 99 degrees. If it falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, you may have hypothermia.
Hypothermia occurs when the body doesn't make energy to keep your internal temperature warm enough. Developing hypothermia is a process:
- As your internal temperature drops, your heart and breathing rates slow and weaken.
- This can cause heart failure, where the heart doesn't pump blood as well as it should.
- While heart failure isn't always fatal, it can be -- especially when it's caused by hypothermia. In fact, heart failure is the leading cause of death from hypothermia.
One of the best things you can do to prevent hypothermia and stay warm is to wear multiple layers of clothing. Air gets trapped between layers, protecting against the cold. Also, keep your head, hands, and feet warm -- heat escapes from those areas quickly.
3. But Don't Stay Too Warm
At the same time, being too warm can cause overheating. Being overheated isn't just uncomfortable -- it's not good for your heart.
When you're overheated, your body needs to release heat. However, warm clothing can trap the heat in too much. Your blood vessels may dilate, significantly lowering your blood pressure -- reducing your heart's blood supply and potentially causing a heart attack.
Too many layers of clothing can trap in heat, but it's still important to wear layers in order to stay warm. If you feel yourself getting overheated, remove a layer. Once you cool down, you can put it back on.
4. Get Your Flu Shot
The flu isn't always life-threatening, but people with heart disease have a higher risk of serious complications from the flu or making an existing heart condition worse. The flu has been associated with an increase in heart attacks and strokes.
The #1 way to prevent the flu? Get your flu shot. For people with heart disease, the flu shot has been associated with lower rates of major heart problems, such as heart attack or stroke.
While it's best to get your flu shot before flu season -- generally the end of October -- the vaccine can still be effective during the later winter months.
Remember -- the flu shot is safe and it does not give you the flu. You may have soreness at the injection site, body aches, or a low fever after the shot, but those are just side effects that will go away quickly -- they are not the flu.
Also, remember that the flu shot is not 100% effective. You may still get the flu, so it's important to take other preventative steps, such as frequent hand-washing. The good news is that even if you get the flu, the vaccine can make it less severe, which lowers your risk of complications.
5. Always Have Extra Medication On Hand
Heavy snow can put an entire city in shutdown mode, especially if the roads aren't clear.
Make sure you have enough medication on hand to make it through the shutdown until the roads are clear enough for you to go to the pharmacy. Missing doses of medication can complicate heart problems. Refill your prescription as soon as your pharmacy and insurance will allow, and see if you're eligible to get a 90-day prescription.
6. Be Prepared For a Power Outage
It's also important to remember that gusts of wind and snow can knock down power lines, making temperatures in your home drop dramatically and rendering your electronics unusable once they run out of power. There are several ways to prepare for and manage a power outage:
- Stock up on towels and blankets to block drafts from coming through windows or doors.
- Run a bathtub of hot water, as this can draw heat into the house.
- If you rely on electronic devices for breathing support, invest in a generator -- a backup source of power can be a life-saving measure.
- Keep a written list of your emergency and physician contact information. You may not be able to access these numbers if they're stored online during an outage.
- Have at least 3 days' worth of drinking water on hand. If your house relies on an electric well-water pump, an outage can mean no available water. This can lead to dehydration, which may cause low blood pressure or increased heart rate.
7. If You're Snowed In, Stay Moving
If you are stuck inside, it can be tempting to sit on the couch all day, binge watching TV with your hot chocolate in hand. However, you need to keep moving. Physical activity is one of the best ways to take care of your heart and prevent complications from existing problems.
You don't need to turn your home into a gym with expensive machines. There are plenty of workouts available for free or for a small price on the internet, streaming services, or smartphone apps. Consider investing in a set of hand weights and a yoga mat to keep options for types of workouts open.
There are still a few more months left of winter, so grab those layers, bundle up, and stay warm.
To learn more about your heart health, take an online heart risk assessment to estimate your risk for heart disease.
Related Information from Chester County Hospital: