Is Winter "Heart Attack Season"?

Herbert D. Aronow, MD, MPH

Heart attacks can occur during any season, but there is an increased risk for certain types of heart attacks during winter. It’s interesting that some people appear to be at a higher risk of heart attack during daylight savings time changes.

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, thickening our blood and other negative effects.

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

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.

Heart attack vs. cardiac arrest

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Some heart disease risk factors can't be controlled. Some can.

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.

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.

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