Dr. Campbell: Health dangers of extreme cold

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Over the last several days, winter has come to North Carolina. We have had snow, sleet, freezing rain and below normal temperatures. These extreme temperatures can have a significant effect on your heart health.

  1. How does the cold weather affect our overall health and our heart?

The cold can increase blood pressure and heart rate. It also causes blood vessels to constrict and stiffen. Cold can put an extra strain on the cardiovascular system. In those with underlying heart disease, exertion in the cold can precipitate an event. Elderly people are more susceptible to cold-related complications. When it’s cold outside our heart works much harder to keep our bodies warm.

Hormones, like Cortisone levels in the wintertime, fluctuate with the colder weather, causing platelets to become “sticky.” These sticky platelets allow clots to form more easily. As the arteries constrict due to cold air, blockages increase in heart arteries and this can lead to heart attack.

  1. What are the risks associated with extreme cold? What is hypothermia and what can you do about it?

Hypothermia is a real risk—it occurs when body temperature has fallen below 35 degrees Celsius or about 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Hypothermia happens when your body can’t produce enough energy to keep the internal body temperature warm enough and it can be deadly. Symptoms of hypothermia are often hard to identify and can include lack of coordination, mental confusion, slowed reactions, shivering and sleepiness.

Besides cold temperatures, high winds, snow and rain also can steal body heat. Wind is especially dangerous, because it removes the layer of heated air from around your body. At 30 degrees Fahrenheit in a 30 mph wind, the cooling effect is equal to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, dampness causes the body to lose heat faster than it would at the same temperature in drier conditions.

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.

  1. What are some tips to stay safe in the cold?

To help make snow removal and cold weather exposure safer, here is a list of tips:

  • Take frequent breaks: Take frequent rest breaks during shoveling snow or working outside so you don’t overstress your heart. Pay attention to how your body feels during those breaks.
  • Learn the heart attack warning signs and listen to your body:

If you feel tired or short of breath—stop. Even if you’re not sure it’s a heart attack, have it checked out (tell a doctor about your symptoms). Fast action can save lives — maybe your own. Don’t wait to call 911.

  • Don’t drink alcoholic beverages before or immediately after shoveling or other outdoor activities in the cold weather: Alcohol may increase a person’s sensation of warmth and may cause them to underestimate the extra strain their body is under in the cold. You may not realize that you are in danger of developing hypothermia.
  • Consult a doctor if you have a medical concern or question or if you are experiencing symptoms of a medical condition (such as heart disease or diabetes), before exercising in cold weather – especially if this is a substantial increase over your usual level of activity.
  • Be aware of the dangers of hypothermia:To prevent hypothermia, dress in layers of warm clothing, which traps air between layers forming a protective insulation. Wear a hat because much of your body’s heat can be lost through your head.
  • Learn CPR and never exert yourself in cold weather alone: Effective bystander CPR, provided immediately after sudden cardiac arrest, can double or triple a victim’s chance of survival. Hands-only CPR makes it easier than ever to save a life. If an adult suddenly collapses, call 911 and begin pushing hard and fast in the middle of the victim’s chest until help arrives.

Click to read Dr. Campbell’s report on snow and heart attacks in US News & World Report.

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

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