Heart attacks can occur during any season, but there is an increased risk for certain types of heart attacks during the cold weather months of winter.

Cold weather places an immense strain on the heart. Low temperatures cause our blood vessels and arteries to narrow, restricting blood flow and reducing oxygen to the heart. The heart must pump harder to circulate blood through the constricted blood vessels. As a result, both blood pressure and heart rate increase. A sudden spike in blood pressure – especially when paired with outdoor exertion, such as shoveling a snowy sidewalk– can cause sore muscles, lower back pain, and even heart attacks.

Why do I get chest pain in cold weather?

There are many factors that may play a role in the increased heart attack risk during cold weather, such as barometric pressure, humidity, wind, and cold temperatures. These wintry conditions may trigger our bodies to respond negatively by increasing nervous system activity, narrowing our blood vessels, and thickening our blood. Walking through heavy snow or bracing against blustery winds can feel like a workout and put an unanticipated strain on the heart.

Are heart attacks more common in the winter?

There are several theories why heart attacks are more common in winter. First and foremost, the main risk factor for a heart attack is biological. If you are unaware of an underlying coronary artery disease, you may be at risk for a heart attack.

During cold weather, blood vessels will contract, which can raise your blood pressure and increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.

  • Cold weather makes your heart work harder to maintain a healthy body temperature.
  • Angina, or chest pain due to coronary heart disease, can worsen in winter when coronary arteries constrict in the cold.
  • Wind and improper dress can make your body lose heat more quickly. When body temperature drops below 95 degrees, hypothermia can damage your heart muscle.

How to cure chest pain during cold weather.

A breath of cold, fresh, clean winter air can do wonders if you’re stuck indoors but it can also trigger spasms in the lung airways, making it harder to breathe, especially for those prone to asthma. However, if you feel chest pain when you are breathing cold air, tell your doctor immediately because it could be a sign that you have a heart condition. Just as cold air constricts the lung muscles, it can cause arteries to constrict and raise your blood pressure. For someone with an undiagnosed heart condition, simply breathing in cold air can lead to chest pain.

What are the signs of a heart attack?

  • Pain or discomfort in the chest that can sometimes feel like squeezing or pressure
  • Pain elsewhere in the body, including the arms, back, neck, or jaw
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling lightheaded or nauseous

Cold weather won’t increase your risk of a heart attack if you are an average healthy person. Everyone should be aware of the major symptoms of a heart attack:

  • Chest pain or discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center or left side of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes or that goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.
  • Feeling weak, light-headed, or faint. You may also break out into a cold sweat.
  • Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, back, one or both arms or shoulders.
  • Shortness of breath. This often comes along with chest discomfort, but shortness of breath also can happen before chest discomfort.
  • Unusual or unexplained tiredness and nausea or vomiting.

If you or someone else experiences these symptoms, call 9-1-1 fast. It’s worth noting that women sometimes experience different symptoms than men and often feel pain in the jaw, neck or back. Learn more about women and heart disease.

What is the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest?

Both heart attacks and cardiac arrests are dangerous, or even deadly, but they are not the same thing.

A heart attack occurs when a blood vessel to the heart muscle suddenly becomes blocked.  The muscle, starved of oxygen and nutrition, begins to die.  When a small heart attack occurs, there is little heart muscle damage.  In contrast, when a big heart attack occurs, there is a lot of heart muscle damage.  Regardless of the size of the heart attack, these can cause significant disability or even death.

Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart stops beating. This can happen for a number of reasons, including a heart attack, but can also occur in the absence of a heart attack. A person suffering from cardiac arrest may be revived through cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and the use of a defibrillator, which restarts the heart.

What is a silent heart attack?

A silent heart attack is a heart attack that has few, if any, symptoms or has symptoms not recognized as a heart attack. A silent heart attack might not cause chest pain or shortness of breath, which are typically associated with a heart attack.

People who have a silent heart attack might think they've had heartburn, the flu or a strained chest muscle. But a silent heart attack, like any heart attack, involves blockage of blood flow to the heart and possible damage to the heart muscle.

There are no tests to determine the potential for having a silent heart attack. A health care provider can evaluate and treat the risks to reduce the chance of having a silent heart attack. Learn more about the risks for a silent heart attack.

Be heart smart

During the winter months, it is important to continue leading a heart-healthy lifestyle, as you should all year. 

  • Maintain a heart-healthy diet, get regular aerobic exercise and reduce stress.
  • Manage heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, abnormal cholesterol, and tobacco use. 
  • Protect yourself from the cold temperatures and elements by dressing in layers and wearing appropriate clothing.
  • If you already have cardiovascular disease, avoid strenuous activities, such as shoveling heavy snow.
  • If you experience shortness of breath or chest discomfort, especially with activity, seek medical attention immediately to rule out a heart or blood vessel related problem.

Keep your heart safe this winter, and all year long. Learn how to lower your risk of heart disease.

Lifespan Cardiovascular Institute

The Lifespan Cardiovascular Institute at Rhode Island, The Miriam and Newport hospitals provides the highest level of diagnostic, interventional, surgical and rehabilitative cardiac care 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Our cardiovascular specialists work as a team, across all disciplines, combining their expertise to provide an individualized treatment plan for each patient.