There’s an image well-known to most medical students of a man experiencing chest pain. In the picture, the man clutches his chest with a grimace as he walks outside of a diner. Not to be missed is the fact that snow is falling: it’s winter.
Doctors have known for years that cold weather can stress the heart and recent studies continue to show a link between cold weather and heart issues.
“There is some evidence that there’s increased risk for heart disease during cold weather months,” said Dr. Will Baker, a cardiologist with UCHealth Heart and Vascular Clinics in Steamboat Springs and Craig.
The reasons for that increased risk are multi-faceted. To start with, when you’re outside in the cold, the small blood vessels in your skin constrict to help save heat. That means your heart must worker harder to pump blood through those tighter vessels.
“That can raise your blood pressure and heart rate, stressing the heart,” Baker said.
On top of that, cold weather can require extra work for you and for your heart. “The classic example is snow shoveling,” Baker said. “People tend to go out and overdo it – it’s a lot of work to shovel snow.”
Winter months are also the time when various illnesses, such as the flu and pneumonia, strike. Those sicknesses can put an extra load on the heart.
“Respiratory illnesses in particular are a real stress on the heart, especially for older people,” Baker said. “If you have pneumonia, your oxygen is low and you have to work harder to breathe, which increases heart rate. When you’re sick like that, there’s a lot of physiological stress.”
Depression and stress, which may snowball in the dark wintry days around the holiday season, also impact heart health. “Some people are more stressed, particularly around the holidays, and that adds to increased risk,” Baker said.
And visitors coming to the mountains for a ski vacation may face the double whammy of cold temperatures plus high altitude, which also requires the heart to work harder and can even trigger heart issues such as arrhythmias.
But there is good news: many of the issues that cold presents can be addressed.
“A lot of it is just using common sense,” Baker said. “Realize that winter activities, even fun, recreational activities, can be physically demanding.”
Before shoveling snow, soaring down your first ski run or gliding away on your Nordic skis, take time to warm-up. Dress appropriately and watch that you don’t overheat. “Overheating can be just as bad as being too cold,” Baker said.
Visitors should take time to acclimate and follow other guidelines such as getting proper sleep, avoiding heavy meals and minimizing use of alcohol.
“It’s not to say you can’t go skiing on day one, but stick to the groomers, take breaks and stay hydrated,” Baker said. “You’re going to enjoy your vacation a lot more.”
Baker also recommends that visitors who have heart issues check with their doctor about their travel plans and then be especially careful to take extra time to acclimate and warm-up, and to eat a healthy diet.
Never ignore signs or symptoms of a possible heart problem. And remember that many times, symptoms of a heart issue are more varied than just chest discomfort.
“You may feel profoundly more out of breath than seems appropriate, or you may experience nausea, dizziness and heart palpitations,” Baker said. “Any time there’s any kind of symptom, it’s worth getting it checked out.”
This article first appeared in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on Dec. 17, 2018.