The American Heart Association launched Operation Winter Weather Warnings this month with an educational campaign targeting people with existing heart disease or stroke, and those who may be at high risk.
This includes people with a strong family history, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol; people who smoke; and those who are overweight or sedentary. The association urges them to be cautious to avoid sudden cardiac death.
Deaths from coronary artery disease tend to rise rapidly right after Thanksgiving, continuing through Christmas, and peaking around New Year’s Day. Several factors may influence this unfortunate trend, from an increase in respiratory infections during the winter, to increased workload on the heart from activities such as shoveling of heavy snow.
The American Heart Association gives these tips to help respond to and prevent sudden cardiac arrest:
— Avoid sudden cold-weather exertion: In and of itself, snow shoveling can be healthy, good exercise, but not if you are normally sedentary, are in poor physical condition, or have risk factors that make snow shoveling inadvisable for your health. Everyone who must be outdoors in cold weather should avoid sudden exertion, like lifting a heavy shovel full of snow. Even walking through heavy, wet snow or snowdrifts can strain a person’s heart.
— Recognize the symptoms of hypothermia: Hypothermia occurs when your body can’t produce enough energy to keep the internal body temperature warm enough, causing it to fall below normal. It can kill you. Heart failure causes most deaths in hypothermia. Symptoms include lack of coordination, mental confusion, slowed reactions, shivering, and sleepiness.
Children, the elderly and those with heart disease are at special risk. As people age, their ability to maintain a normal internal body temperature often decreases. Because elderly people seem to be relatively insensitive to moderately cold conditions, they can suffer hypothermia without knowing they’re in danger.
— Stay Warm: People with coronary heart disease often suffer chest pain or discomfort called angina pectoris when they’re in cold weather. Besides cold temperatures, high winds, snow and rain also can steal body heat. Wind is especially dangerous, because it removes the layer of heated air from around your body. Similarly, dampness causes the body to lose heat faster than it would at the same temperature in drier conditions.
To keep warm, wear layers of clothing. This traps air between layers, forming a protective insulation. Also, wear a hat or headscarf. Much of your body’s heat can be lost through your head and ears are especially prone to frostbite. Keep your hands and feet warm, too, as they tend to lose heat rapidly.
— Avoid alcohol before heading outdoors: Alcohol gives an initial feeling of warmth, but this is caused by expanding blood vessels in the skin. Heat is then drawn away from the body’s vital organs. Alcohol consumption and physical activity in harsh winter weather conditions can increase the likelihood of hypothermia.
— Learn CPR and/or Hands-Only CPR: About 80 percent of all out-of-hospital cardiac arrests occur in private residential settings, so being trained to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation can mean the difference between life and death. Effective bystander CPR, provided immediately after cardiac arrest, can double a victim’s chance of survival. The American Heart Association conducts courses convenient to everyone. To access a course listing, log on to the AHA’s website at www.heart.org/cpr.
Hands-Only CPR is CPR without mouth-to-mouth breaths. It is recommended for use by people who see an adult suddenly collapse in an out-of-hospital setting (like at home, at work, or in a park). It offers an easy-to-remember and effective option to those bystanders who have been previously trained in CPR but are afraid to help because they are not confident that they can remember and perform the steps of conventional CPR.
It consists of two steps:
— 1. Call 911 (or send someone to do that), and
— 2. Begin providing high-quality chest compressions by pushing hard and fast in the center of the chest with minimal interruptions.
For additional information on Hands-Only CPR and to watch an instructional video visit www.handsonlycpr.org.