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Cold Weather Heart Health

It’s already mid-February and lots of us are sick and tired of all the snow and ice thus far. More is expected.

Despite the fun this weather brings to ice skaters, kids, sledders and skiers, snow and ice pose particular dangers for the elderly and infirm. The American Heart Association (AHA), in recognition of February as American Heart Association Month, offers winter weather safety tips for shoveling snow that may be able to save your life.

Shoveling snow in cold weather can lead directly to extra stress on the heart and cause a heart attack. “People who are outdoors in cold weather should avoid sudden exertion, like lifting a heavy snow shovel packed with snow. Even walking through heavy, wet snow can strain a person’s heart,” said Kevin Marzo, MD, a spokesman for the American Heart Association.

The AHA offers the following tips for safer snow removal:

• Take rest breaks while shoveling to reduce stress on the heart

• Don’t eat a heavy meal before or right after shoveling

• Use a small shovel or use a snow thrower, if available. Push the snow when possible rather than lifting a full shovel.

• Know the warning signs (see below) of an attack and listen to your body

• Avoid alcoholic beverages before and immediately after shoveling

• Beware of hypothermia. Heart failure causes most deaths in hypothermia. Wear layers of clothing to minimize the loss of body heat from the head and hands in particular.

Warning Signs

While some heart attacks occur suddenly, others begin slowly with mild pain and discomfort. Too often when symptoms begin, people ignore them and thus delay rapid diagnosis and treatment. Signs of a heart attack include:

• Chest discomfort in the center of the chest lasting for a few minutes, or that disappears and then returns. People describe the pain variously as pressure, squeezing, or fullness, often with pain.

• Discomfort in other areas of the upper body – pain in the back, arms, neck, jaw or stomach

• Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort

• Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness

Dr. Marzo pointed out that women’s most frequent heart attack symptoms are chest pain or discomfort. “But women are somewhat more likely to experience some of the other common symptoms, especially shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and back or jaw pain.” Dr. Marzo is chief of the Division of Cardiology at Winthrop University Hospital

Most important of all, experts agree, is to call 911 at the first suspicion of a heart attack. Calling 911 provides the best and fastest care by health professionals. Don’t delay seeking help – it can save your life!