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Can Cold Weather Cause More Heart Attacks?

woman putting on winter mittens

The weather is not typically top of the list when we think of the causes of heart attacks. To be sure, lack of exercise and poor dietary choices are Americans’ primary causes of this deadly condition. However, patients need to understand what they’re feeling during cold weather, and this can be a warning sign of cardiovascular disease and even an impending potential heart attack.

Here in the Northeast, temperatures can get bitterly cold, and regardless of what we wear, our bodies try to compensate for even small temperature changes. They do so in the cold by constricting blood vessels to retain more heat in the core. This is why your skin turns white and even blue if exposed to the cold. Remember that your vascular system requires body heat to work correctly, so by reducing blood flow to less important peripheral structures, our body can keep us alive longer, for example, in an emergency. Of course, when a blood vessel constricts, less blood circulates. This is rarely a concern in an adult with a healthy cardiovascular system, as even reduced blood flow still provides enough oxygen throughout the body.

However, someone with heart disease, particularly atherosclerosis, a condition in which the arteries are narrowed by plaque along their walls, can feel significant effects associated with this normal constriction of blood vessels, not least of which is angina or chest pain.

As we’ve said before, the goal of this vessel constriction is to preserve the function of the heart and brain. Therefore, the coronary arteries are not constricted significantly like the peripheral arteries. Further, the coronary arteries are substantially wider to accommodate the blood flow needs of the heart. But significantly occluded coronary arteries can lead to pain and a heart attack. In fact, it is estimated that adults have a 30% higher chance of heart attack in the coldest weather versus the warm summer months.

Believe it or not, dehydration due to cold, dry weather can also cause reduced oxygen transport in the blood throughout the body. If oxygen levels drop low enough and it affects the heart, a heart attack can ensue.

Patients can get other clues about their arterial health from how their body reacts in cold weather. The peripheral arteries, those that go to the legs and arms, are smaller than the coronary arteries, and those, too, can begin to narrow due to plaque buildup. Therefore, if you are experiencing pain in your extremities during cold weather, and your feet or hands seem to have much-reduced circulation, turning white or even blue very quickly, you should see a cardiovascular specialist both for the potential diagnosis of peripheral artery disease and to get screened for coronary artery disease and atherosclerosis.

Remember that our bodies are finely tuned machines; even small changes can make a significant difference. Keeping an eye on the signs associated with heart disease can help you get an earlier diagnosis that often results in a more effective treatment plan. At the same time, it may be tempting to brush off cardiovascular-related aches and pains, but some can be significant harbingers of larger concerns in the future.

If you are experiencing any extremity or chest pain during these cold winter months, we encourage you to schedule an appointment with one of our cardiologists. If this pain is significant, or you believe you are having an emergency like a heart attack, do not delay calling 911 or going to your nearest emergency room.

September 9, 2020 The Heart House is Proud to be recognized in SJ Magazine’s 2020 Top Docs

The team at The Heart House is pleased to announce our providers have been recognized by SJ Magazine in their […]

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