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Protecting Your Heart in Winter Weather: Expert Advice from Jefferson Cardiology
By Nancy Kennedy

The cold and snowy weather of winter can be beautiful and invigorating, but people with heart conditions should take special precautions to stay healthy and safe. Learning to protect yourself and pace yourself are the keys to staying heart-healthy in winter, says Alan D. Bramowitz, M.D., a board-certified cardiologist with Jefferson Cardiology Association.

“Cold winter weather affects the heart in several important ways,” Dr. Bramowitz explains. “It places extra demands on the heart; it can raise the blood pressure and the heart rate; and it can cause the blood to clot more quickly. Anyone with a history of heart disease needs to be aware that there is always the potential for new problems. If you have heart disease but it is stable and you don’t have symptoms, you can be active in winter, but be careful.”

Some specific measures recommended by Dr. Bramowitz are:

  • When you go outside, stay warm. Wear layers of clothing to trap air around you. This creates a layer of insulation that keeps you warmer.
  • Cover up exposed skin: wear gloves and a hat.
  • Avoid alcohol before going out in the cold; it can give you a false sense of warmth and also cause vasodilation - the expansion of blood vessels – that can drop your blood pressure.
  • To avoid inhaling frigid air, wear a mask or a scarf around your mouth and nose to make the air warmer.
  • Know the symptoms of heart attack: chest pressure; squeezing sensations; discomfort in the arms, back, jaw or shoulders; nausea; cold sweat; shortness of breath. If you experience any of these symptoms, stop your activity immediately and call 911.
  • Know the symptoms of hypothermia: mental confusion, shivering, sleepiness, slow heart rate
  • Be careful not to get overheated, which can also cause vasodilation and a drop in blood pressure.
  • Simply walking in deep snow or snow drifts can be hard on the heart. Unless you absolutely have to go out, remain at home, turn the thermostat to 68 or whatever is most comfortable, and stay safe and warm indoors.

Dr. Bramowitz says that sometimes, older heart patients want to engage in the same winter activities they enjoyed at a younger age, such as hunting. “Be realistic about your limits,” he warns. “If you are a heart patient and you want to go hunting, do not go alone. Don’t climb hills and don’t attempt to drag a heavy animal by yourself. Avoid alcohol and heavy meals and make sure you have a cell phone with you.”

Snow shoveling demands extra precautions. “Persons who have had cardiac procedures and have ongoing symptoms, and those with angina, weak heart muscle and heart failure, need to restrict themselves: they shouldn’t do any snow shoveling and they should limit their exposure to extreme cold and winds. If your heart disease is stable and you’re free of symptoms, and the amount of snow is small (meaning an inch), it’s probably fine to push the snow, without lifting heavy snow,” says Dr. Bramowitz. “Don’t eat a big meal before shoveling; that will divert blood flow to your gastrointestinal system, away from your heart and muscles. Pace yourself. Take breaks and listen to your body.”

The darkness and social isolation of a long winter can take an emotional toll, leading to loneliness and depression, and that can impact heart health. Dr. Bramowitz recommends opening your curtains to bring in the sunlight and keeping in touch with family and friends. “If you are feeling overwhelmed by negative feelings, reach out to others for help. Have someone you can call. Try to take good care of yourself: take your medications, eat well and get plenty of rest.”

In western Pennsylvania, winters are long, but they do come to an end. Taking care of your heart through the winter will help you be prepared to enjoy the wonders of spring and summer when they finally arrive!

Jefferson Cardiology Association is a community-based medical practice that offers individualized, high quality care of the heart and blood vessels, including prevention, state of the art diagnostics and advanced treatment, including medications and recommendations for lifestyle changes to support and improve heart health. There are four locations, in Jefferson Hills, Belle Vernon, Jeanette and Uniontown. To contact Jefferson Cardiology, call (412) 469-1500 or visit the web site, www.jeffersoncardiology.com.

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