When the temperature dips below freezing, people can experience vasoconstriction, which is tightening of the arteries. The blood vessels in your heart actually shrink a bit, which decreases the amount of blood flow to the heart. That can cause problems such as a heart attack.
When you're physically active, your body performs vasodilation, which is opening of the arteries. Blood vessels dilate to provide more blood. But cold weather can constrict the vessels and blood flow can be interrupted. Cold weather makes your heart work harder to keep your body warm, so your heart rate and blood pressure may increase. So it could be that people with coronary heart disease suffer chest pains or discomfort when they're active in the cold.
What can you do?
Know the warning signs of a heart attack.
Shortness of breath
Irregular heartbeat and
Heaviness or cramping in the chest
are all signs you might be having heart problems. Women, the elderly and diabetics might get the typical chest pain, but more often they experience atypical and nonspecific symptoms, including fatigue, a fluttering sensation in the chest, flu-like symptoms, and pain in the back, shoulder or jaw.
Here are some other tips:
Limit your exposure in cold weather.
If you go outside, make sure you dress warmly -- wear extra socks, long underwear and several layers on your upper body.
Don’t overheat your body.
If you dress for the cold then increase physical activity, you can overheat. That can cause blood vessels to dilate, leading to low blood pressure for those who have heart conditions. If you feel like you're sweating, get indoors and take a break.
Don’t overexert yourself.
Shoveling snow is a real workout. In the cold, it's much worse on people with heart disease. You could be at risk for a heart attack or heart failure. Shovel the right way -- make sure there's no more than an inch on the ground, and push it, rather than shovel it. Lay down some salt or de-icer on your sidewalk or driveway before the snow arrives to make it easier to shovel.
If you decide to take a walk in the cold, don't overexert your body by walking into a brisk wind.
Take it easy.
Avoid nicotine, alcohol and caffeine.
They can narrow the blood vessels, which can cause the issues I've described.
Call your doctor.
Consult a physician if you have a medical concern or question or if you’re experiencing symptoms of heart disease or diabetes – before you go out to exercise, preferably.
Remember that in addition to cold temperatures, high winds, snow and rain also can steal body heat. Wind chill can be particularly bothersome, because it removes a layer of heat from your body. Wet conditions also can cause the body to lose heat faster than when it's dry out.
Best thing - stay in and stay warm.
Thanks to Daniel Bachmann is an emergency medicine physician and director of the hyperbaric medicine program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.