Dr. Campbell: Cold weather and heart health

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – When temperatures drop, the heart has to work harder to help maintain your body’s core temperature.

In fact, according to the American Heart Association, heart failure is the cause of most deaths from hypothermia – a dangerous condition in which the body’s temperature falls below normal.

Cold weather increases heart attack risks – particularly in those with underlying heart disease who begin to exert themselves in the cold – activities such as shoveling snow, etc.

When we are exposed to extreme cold we are at risk for both hypothermia as well as other cardiovascular issues. When the temperature drops the heart must work harder to maintain a core body temperature. If you have underlying heart disease, the cold may be the additional stressor that ultimately causes you to have a heart attack.

When you are in the extreme cold, your body must work harder to maintain a safe core temperature. Your blood vessels constrict and your blood pressure increases. When you begin to exert yourself in the cold, your heart rate increases in order to keep up with the oxygen demands of your body. In addition, some studies have shown that clotting factor levels and platelet activities (they become stickier) are increased during exposure to extreme cold – this all can contribute to the formation of a clot in the heart arteries that ultimately causes a heart attack.

Hypothermia means the body temperature has fallen below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. It occurs when your body can’t produce enough energy to keep the internal body temperature warm enough. It can kill you. Heart failure causes most deaths in hypothermia. Symptoms include lack of coordination, mental confusion, slowed reactions, shivering and sleepiness.

Hypothermia can occur quickly.

Symptoms include:

• Exhaustion or drowsiness
• Shivering
• Confusion
• Memory loss
• Fumbling hands
• Slurred speech

If you want to stay safe, here are some tips:

• Make sure to dress in layers – use a base layer and build from there.
• Warm up before exerting yourself – stretch, take your time getting going.
• Take frequent breaks.
• Make sure that others are aware of what you are doing and know where you are so that they can check on you frequently.
• Avoid alcohol as alcohol can mask the signs of a heart attack and can give you a false sense of warmth even when you are at risk for hypothermia. Alcohol also causes blood vessels in the skin to dilate which can result in more heat loss.
• Don’t eat a big meal or drink caffeine prior to going out for activity in the cold – big meals divert blood flow to the gut from the heart and caffeine is a stimulant that can increase blood pressure and put more stress on the heart.

To keep warm, wear layers of clothing. This traps air between layers, forming a protective insulation. Also, wear a hat or head scarf. Heat can be lost through your head. And ears are especially prone to frostbite. Keep your hands and feet warm, too, as they tend to lose heat rapidly.

The bottom line when it comes to protecting yourself from hypothermia is to use common sense. Dress warmly. Don’t go outside in the cold unless you have to. If you do have to work, make sure that you take frequent breaks and work with a buddy. If you have underlying heart disease, do not overdo it in the snow and cold. The very young, the very old and those with heart disease must be very careful to limit exposure during very cold temperatures.

To get in touch with Dr. Campbell, you can head to his website, Facebook page or message him on Twitter.

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