5 Ways To Protect Your Heart in Cold Weather

When you have heart disease, wintry conditions can open you up to big-time problems, including heart attack and stroke.

Medically reviewed in October 2021

Each year, around 100 Americans die while shoveling snow, or shortly afterward. Hundreds more are hospitalized for related heart problems. Most are men, and many have existing cardiovascular disease. 

Shoveling isn’t the only wintertime danger for people with heart problems, however. A drop in body temperature called hypothermia can lead to cardiac arrest, heart failure and more. Winter is peak flu season, too, and catching the illness raises your chances of heart attack and stroke. 

So, come winter, what should someone with a heart condition do? 

Dress right 
Ideally, it’s best to stay in your own cozy home on cold days. Chilly weather can cause blood vessels to narrow, meaning your heart has to work harder to pump blood. If you must go outdoors, wear a warm coat along with a scarf and hat, since your head tends to lose a lot of heat. Opt for layers of clothing underneath. They’ll keep you insulated, but you can take them off if you become overheated. If you get wet, change into a new outfit immediately. Damp clothes speed the loss of body heat.

Avoid overexertion 
Shoveling—or even walking—through heavy snow can strain your heart, especially if you don’t exercise regularly. If you can, pay a local kid to dig out the driveway or hire someone to plow. If you can’t, take breaks when you work outside, and stop if you become tired or start to feel poorly. Chest pain and shortness of breath are among the most common signs of a heart attack; don’t play them off, even if they go away. See a healthcare provider (HCP) at once with any unusual symptoms.

Fend off the flu 
Defend your heart health by washing your hands often, avoiding people you know to be sick and getting an annual flu shot. And if you do feel an illness coming on? Speak with your HCP about treatment.

Stick to your prescriptions 
Sometimes, in the flurry of end-of-year activities, we forget our meds. Other times, icy conditions make it tough to reach an HCP or pharmacy. Don’t let wintry weather keep you from taking your heart medication; set reminders and ensure you’re stocked up in the event of a storm. Traveling? Check to see if your pharmacy delivers. On planes, pack drugs in a carry-on bag and take enough for delays, just in case.

Practice good habits 
Between holiday celebrations and being stuck inside for months on end, winter can put a serious crimp in healthy living. While it’s okay to indulge sometimes, eating a nutritious diet and getting regular exercise helps keep your heart in good shape throughout the season. Try to balance party snacks with lighter, plant-based food and look into indoor physical activities, like mall walking or weight training, which is great for heart health. Speak with a provider for recommendations before starting any new exercise program.

Sources:
Watson D, Shields B, et al. Snow shovel–related injuries and medical emergencies treated in US EDs, 1990 to 2006. The Journal of Emergency Medicine. Volume 29, Issue 1, P11-17. March 26, 2010.
Schmerling, Robert H. “Can shoveling snow put your heart at risk?” Harvard Health Publishing. December 6, 2017.
American Heart Association. “How to Stay Active in Cold Weather,” “Cold Weather and Cardiovascular Disease,” “Warning Signs of a Heart Attack,” “Strength and Resistance Training Exercise.”
National Institute on Aging. “Cold Weather Safety for Older Adults.”
Centers for Disease and Prevention. “Flu and Heart Disease & Stroke,” “Healthy Habits to Help Prevent Flu.”
Harvard Health Publishing. “Avoiding winter heart attacks.”
British Heart Foundation. “Cold weather and your heart."

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