Winter with heart failure: Things to be mindful of this season

Winter is a beautiful time of year in Canada with glistening snowfall, beautiful snow-capped mountains, and frozen lakes and rivers. However, our winters are also long, and often harsh, in much of our country. The cold season increases the risk of dangers for everyone, and for those living with heart failure, this is especially so. Contending with strong winds, heavy wet snow, ice and extreme temperatures can place undue demands on our hearts.

Low temperatures can cause blood vessels to narrow, restricting the flow of blood around the body, and so reducing the amount of oxygen reaching the heart. This means the heart needs to work harder to continue pumping enough blood and oxygen around the body, as reported by Keep It Pumping.

Rapid drops in temperature can lead to worsening heart failure symptoms, a higher risk of hospitalization, and an increase in risk of death for heart failure patients. For this reason, it’s crucial to take precautions and be aware of the risks winter brings for heart health. The following tips can help you stay safe from the cold this season.

Reduce your exposure to cold

Avoid the impact of cold weather by reducing the amount of time you spend outside. If you are outdoors make sure to dress warm with several layers. This includes wearing a coat, hat, gloves, and warm footwear. If you find your breathing affected by the cold, try wrapping a scarf around your face. People taking beta blockers often have cold hands and feet, so you may need two pairs of socks and mittens instead of gloves.

Stay active during winter  

It can be hard to stay physically active when the cold weather hits. But by decreasing our physical activity, we’re essentially ‘hibernating’ our hearts, according to Health Canada. Hearts need regular exercise during winter and you can do simple exercises at home, take short walks, practice yoga, or strength training. Other options include walking tracks, mall walking, pools, or community centre fitness programs. Be sure to stay hydrated before, during, and after you exercise.

Keep your home heated  

Stay warm by heating your home to 18°C or higher. Open blinds or curtains to let as much natural sunlight in to each room as possible, and check sealing around doors and windows to minimize draughts. Using an extra blanket or a hot water bottle may be helpful during colder periods.

Don’t become overheated

During winter, you don’t want to find yourself sweating if you are outside because this signals that your body is overheated. If your body can’t release the extra heat it will lower your blood pressure, reducing blood supply to the heart. If this happens, remove layers until you cool down and/or take the time to go indoors and let your body readjust to a warmer temperature. It’s important to check with your medical practitioner to find out if you should be shovelling snow, most people living with heart failure will be advised to refrain from shovelling to protect your heart health.

 Maintain a heart healthy diet

The holiday season is generally filled with parties and family gatherings where food and wine are plentiful. “It is recommended that all patients with heart failure completely abstain from alcohol,” as reported by the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research. However, there are many festive non-alcoholic drink recipes available online. If you have diet restrictions try snacking on protein rich food before going out to keep your portions small and minimize sodium and sugar intake.

Be prepared for snow days

Check your local weather forecast regularly for weather that may impact your ability to get out. It’s important to have a supply of your prescriptions on hand to see you through any winter storms.

Reduce your risk of flu  

Flu season can cause a myriad of complications for heart failure patients, which can be potentially life-threatening. Flu shots are strongly recommended for heart failure patients. Your doctor may also recommend a pneumonia shot. Make sure to speak to your doctor immediately if you’re experiencing flu-like symptoms such as a fever, vomiting, or congestion.

There may be days during winter when braving the cold isn’t an option. If the temperature drops below -40°C, it’s often caused by wind chill, and you are best to take shelter indoors and exercise at home, according to Health Canada.


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