As the autumn season ushers in colder temperatures and windier weather this can cause added problems for those with heart and lung difficulties. Cold weather can have a marked effect on those with heart disease and heart failure with the elderly particularly affected.
How does cold weather affect your heart?
Colder temperatures can not only leave you vulnerable to hypothermia, it can also have the effect of making your heart work that much harder in order to keep you warm. Very cold temperatures can increase your blood pressure and heart rate as can, for example, walking into a very strong wind. Very low temperatures can cause your arteries and blood vessels to narrow which can have the effect of restricting your blood and oxygen flow. Your heart therefore has to pump much harder to circulate the blood. People with heart or lung disease can often suffer with chest pains as well as breathing difficulties when exposed to cold temperatures.
If you know you have cardiovascular disease or heart failure you should take steps to avoid over-exerting yourself in the colder winter temperatures. For example don’t be tempted to go outside and start shovelling heaps of snow; in fact try to avoid going out in heavy snow at all. If it’s absolutely necessary for you to be out in very cold or windy conditions then try to pay attention to what your body tells you. If you experience chest pain or breathlessness stop what you’re doing and call for help if necessary.
What happens during Cardiovascular Testing?
In establishing the presence, severity or progression of heart and lung disease a doctor may ask you to undergo Cardiopulmonary Exercise Testing, or CPET. This is a test which is done to measure the performance of the heart and lungs during exercise and at rest. This non-invasive method consists of asking the patient to perform a gentle exercise either on a static upright bicycle or walking treadmill whilst breathing through a comfortable facemask. The breathing, oxygen intake and lung capacity is assessed throughout and after the exercise as well as the heart rate. You will also undergo an ECG, or heart tracing test and this will monitor the performance of the heart before, during and after the exercise test. Your blood pressure will also be monitored throughout the test.
It is not necessary for a patient to be physically fit or to have regular participation in some form of exercise because the CPET is designed for all participants of all ages and levels of fitness. All you need to do is ensure you don’t eat a large meal before the test and for the test itself wear loose, comfortable clothing and flat shoes.
Protect your health this winter
For those with heart disease and breathing difficulties there are certain steps you can take to ensure your problems are not made worse this winter. The most important of these is protection from the colder temperatures. When you venture outside wear lots of layers of clothing to trap your body heat and protect you from cold and strong winds. Heat is easily lost from the head and the extremities so wear a hat, gloves and warm footwear. When indoors try to keep the home at a steady temperature of around 18-20°C. Put extra bedding on your bed and if necessary take a hot water bottle to bed with you. Stay active even indoors; get up and move around at least once every hour. Lethargy is the enemy of heart and lung disease. Get a flu jab before the onset of winter. If you come down with a heavy cold or flu phone your pharmacist or GP for advice.
If you’re worried about your heart and lung health ask your doctor whether cardiopulmonary exercise testing would benefit you.