Teach Me

Can Cold Weather Cause Heart Attacks?

“Baby, it’s cold outside,” and that could increase your risk of a heart attack. Surprised by this fact? “For approximately every 20-degree decrease in temperature, the risk of heart attack increases by 10%,” said Kwan Lee, MD, an interventional cardiologist at Banner Health in Tucson, Arizona.

Let’s investigate further. Have you ever heard of someone suddenly dropping from a heart attack while shoveling snow?

“Shoveling snow is one of the riskiest activities known to be associated with heart attacks and sudden cardiac death,” said Dr. Lee. Here’s why: When temperatures are colder, the activity of your body’s sympathetic nervous system – the system that stimulates your body's fight-flight response – increases, causing your blood vessels to constrict and your heart rate and blood pressure to increase.

“In addition to the changes to your heart caused by cold weather,” said Dr. Lee, “your body’s ability to form clots increases as does the likelihood of abnormal heart rhythms, which could also increase your body’s risk of heart attack.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, the connection between colder temperatures and the rates of “morbidity and mortality” from heart attacks was found in studies to affect most age and sex groups, although men consistently exhibited a stronger correlation.

Heart Attack Risk Factors

There are many known risk factors for heart attacks – both in cold and warm weather. Among the most common heart attack risk factors:

  • Cholesterol: High low-density lipoprotein (LDL) – or bad – cholesterol and low “good,” or high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Family history of heart illness
  • Tobacco or drug use
  • Stress

If you’re concerned about your chances of having a heart attack, consider taking the Banner Health Heart Age Test to assess your risk.

Signs You’re Having a Heart Attack

Would you recognize the symptoms of a heart attack if you or someone close to you was experiencing one? According to Dr. Lee, the “classic” symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Discomfort or pain on either side of your chest
  • Feeling pressure in your chest or like you’re being squeezed
  • Pain or discomfort that radiates from the chest into the neck, back, shoulders, arms or stomach
  • Shortness of breath

Some people, particularly women, elderly and diabetics, experience other heart attack symptoms including nausea, feeling lightheaded or dizzy, feeling tired or breaking out in a cold sweat.

Precautions You Can Take in Winter

While there are many steps you can take year-round to try and avoid a heart attack, including eating a low-fat diet, being physically active, limiting your alcohol intake and saying “no” to tobacco, there are additional things you can do in cold weather to lower your risk.

“I advise patients with known heart disease to stay warm and avoid over-exerting themselves in cold weather,” said Dr. Lee. “Leave snow shoveling to someone else and lay off the high-intensity sports like skiing or skating.”

According to Dr. Lee, everyone should be aware of the signs and symptoms of a heart attack and consider learning CPR as well. In the end, he said, it’s important to listen to what your body is telling you.

If you would like to learn more about your heart attack risk factors or heart attack treatment options, Banner Health’s expert heart care is here for you.

Heart Health