The icy winter days represent a serious threat to the heart, especially for people with pre-existing conditions. In addition to the cold, which can increase the risk of heart attack by 34%, the wind speed, atmospheric pressure and physical activity also contribute. The increase in heart beats and blood pressure, in combination with the frost-determined vasoconstriction, can in fact favor the rupture of atherosclerotic plaques and the generation of a thrombus.
To increase the chances of developing a heart attack there are also physical activities conducted outdoors especially in the morning. Not to mention the impact of respiratory infections typical of the cold season, due to the lowering of temperatures that facilitates the invasion of viruses and other pathogens: in fact, getting sick increases the risk of having adverse cardiovascular events by 600%.
Winter weather, studies suggest, may be especially risky for your heart if you’ve already had a heart attack, have heart disease, or are older than 65. A number of silent, seasonal cardiovascular changes may explain the uptick. As temperatures drop, your blood vessels tighten and blood flow speeds up to help you stay warm. That’s why your blood pressure is often higher in colder seasons. Cholesterol levels appear to rise in midwinter, too.
Heart attack can present in a variety of ways, not all of them involving chest pain.
If you’re male, the classic chest pain is indeed the No. 1 symptom of a heart attack (though not the only one). The pain usually lasts for more than a few minutes, or recurs. It’s commonly described as feeling like an elephant is standing on your chest, but it can also feel like discomfort or pressure. Other symptoms include nausea and vomiting; upper-body pain in the arms, back, shoulders, neck, jaw, or abdomen; shortness of breath; and a feeling of fullness in the center of the chest.
If you’re female, however, a heart attack can present a little differently, says Karol Watson, co-director of the UCLA Program in Preventive Cardiology.
“Chest pressure is usually somewhere in the mix, but it may not be the most prominent symptom.”
Women may come into the doctor’s office with symptoms that don’t evoke a “classic” heart attack: overwhelming fatigue; shortness of breath; nausea; dizziness; sweating; flulike symptoms; and abdominal, jaw, or back pain.
For everyone, the symptoms can be subtle. The risk of having a heart attack but not noticing any symptoms—a phenomenon known as silent heart attack—may be much greater than scientists had previously believed.
If you suspect you’re having a heart attack, call emergency immediately.