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Is winter weather hazardous to your heart?

| Healthy You | Heart Health

Man shovels snow from driveway

Research shows cold weather can lead to more heart attacks. Here’s why and what you can do about it.

Have you ever heard that shoveling snow can cause a heart attack?

There’s good reason, according to Andrea Tackett, MD, a non-invasive cardiologist at PeaceHealth in Bellingham, Washington.

A 2017 study in cold climates showed clearly that there were more heart attacks on cold days than on warm ones.


“Because your heart has to work harder to keep you warm when temperatures are colder,” said Dr. Tackett. “Your blood pressure goes up at the same time that your blood vessels constrict (get smaller) in an effort to keep your body warm.”

“Snow-shoveling is representative of activities we can get wrong in the winter,” said Dr. Tackett. The activity is strenuous — it doesn’t take long to feel out of breath after just a few minutes. It’s also spontaneous — people might not plan or prepare well to do it. And they’re usually in a hurry to get it done.

For anyone with a known heart condition, especially heart failure and blocked or hardened arteries (atherosclerosis), she recommends checking with a cardiologist or primary care provider before doing any activity that is physically taxing in cold conditions.

If it’s an option, stay indoors on snowy days. If not, see if younger, healthier individuals nearby can help clear your walk or drive.

Undiagnosed heart disease

People who know they have a heart condition can use that knowledge to make wise choices. “And most patients with a diagnosis will usually be on medications or other treatment that help offset some of the effects of cold,” said Dr. Tackett.

A big concern is for those who have heart disease but don’t know it yet. That’s when doing something like shoveling snow can be especially dangerous. Dress warmly and take breaks to put less stress on your heart, she noted. 

And if heart disease runs in your family, talk with your primary care provider. Before you do, try PeaceHealth’s free heart risk screening assessment. It will help you understand your risks. It will also give you a useful report to share with your doctor.

Other risks in winter

Frosty temperatures aren’t the only thing that can affect heart health in the winter. Viruses also cause concerns.

“We've known a long time that influenza increases heart attack risk,” said Dr. Tackett. “That is particularly true one week after someone has had influenza. That's why the American Heart Association has been adamant for a very long time that all of our patients need to get a flu shot.”  

As doctors have learned since early 2020, COVID-19 also increases the risk of heart attacks even as much as a year after someone has recovered from it, she said.

For anyone with heart disease, it’s important to get recommended shots and follow other healthy habits to lessen the chance of getting sick.

Steps to protect heart health

Dr. Tackett offered the following steps for protecting heart health in the winter:

  • Get regular exercise. Moving your body helps your heart now and over time. Read tips on heart failure and exercise. Talk to your doctor about what is right for you.
  • Limit alcohol.  While red wine may have some value, alcohol in general doesn’t usually do much good. And it can sometimes be harmful. Learn more about alcohol and cold.
  • Dress for the weather. When it’s chilly and windy, wear enough clothes to keep your body warm. This reduces the stress on your heart.
  • Eat good food. Give your body the nutrients it needs to work well. Read the AHA healthy diet guidelines.
  • Quit smoking. If you’ve tried in the past, keep trying. It’s that important and you are worth it. Ask your primary care provider for help. See tips on how to quit smoking.
  • Get a flu shot. And ask your provider about COVID-19, pneumonia and other vaccinations to protect your heart and overall health. Learn more about flu shots.

For even more on heart-healthy habits, read the AHA’s checklist for health.

Schedule an appointment with a PeaceHealth cardiologist if you have concerns about your heart health.

portrait of Andrea H. Tackett MD

Andrea H. Tackett MD

Andrea Tackett, MD, FACC, joined PeaceHealth in September 2022 as a non-invasive cardiologist. Her medical interests include cardiovascular imaging with an emphasis on echocardiography and nuclear cardiology. Dr. Tackett spent more than 10 years in a private cardiology practice in California before moving to the Pacific Northwest. She served as chair of the cardiovascular department and also as chief of staff at French Hospital Medical Center in San Luis Obispo, Calif. She completed her medical training at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine in Lexington, Ky., with a residency in internal medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz. She trained in cardiovascular medicine as a fellow at the University of Kentucky. She describes how she chose to practice medicine, “My mom went to nursing school when I was 11 years old. I used to read her homework to her while she prepared dinner, did laundry, etc. I enjoyed the subject matter and she enjoyed nursing. When I was choosing an educational and career path, I think her influence and experience was formative.” Outside of clinic, Dr. Tackett likes to hike, travel, read and follow University of Kentucky basketball – Go Cats!