A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Prevent hypothermia, heart attacks in cold weather

snowshoers exercising in winter

Avoid heart attacks and hypothermia in cold weather with frequent breaks and layered clothing.

Walking, shoveling snow and outdoor sports are a normal part of winter for Midwesterners.

As you stay active this winter, take steps to prevent heart attacks, hypothermia, frostbite and falls.

Why heart attacks happen in cold weather

Shoveling, walking through heavy, wet or deep snow and hard physical activity in cold weather can strain your heart if you have heart disease.

Your heart, which is already working hard to pump blood to muscles being used, must work harder because cold temperature increases heart rate and blood pressure, said Dr. Kelley Anderson, a Marshfield Clinic cardiologist. A plaque, or defect, in an artery wall can rupture during sudden physical exertion, form a clot that blocks blood flow and cause a heart attack.

“Heart attacks and sudden death occur more often in people who do not normally exercise but go out in the cold to shovel show,” Anderson said.

Know the warning signs of a heart attack and get immediate medical attention if you have symptoms for more than five minutes.

Watch for hypothermia signs

Hypothermia is a life-threatening condition that occurs when your body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Your heart, brain and nervous system don’t work properly when this happens.

Hypothermia doesn’t happen only in extremely cold weather. Cool temperatures around 40 degrees Fahrenheit may be dangerous to someone chilled from sweat or wet clothes.

People with heart disease are at increased risk for hypothermia, but it’s a dangerous condition for everyone.

Bring someone indoors who is confused, drowsy, shivering, slurring speech or has trouble controlling body movements. Get medical help as soon as possible.

Exercise safely in cold weather

Follow these tips for safer winter exercise.

  • Stay active indoors. Build a base of physical fitness to prepare your body for outdoor activity.
  • Warm up. “Ease into intense activity,” said Dr. James Mullen, a Marshfield Clinic physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist. “Stretch before and after activity, inside if possible.”
  • Take breaks, especially if you have a heart condition. Pay attention to how your body feels. Stop exercising and seek medical attention if you have chest pain.
  • Dress warmly. Mullen recommends layered clothing, fast-drying socks, hat, mittens and footwear with good treads. Consider snow and ice cleats to prevent falls if you’ll be walking on slippery surfaces.
  • Stay hydrated and fueled. Avoid heavy meals with a lot of saturated fat and salt, and don’t drink alcohol.
  • Protect your skin. Use petroleum jelly or another skin balm to shield exposed skin from windburn.

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