Going outside in colder weather can be challenging for anyone, from the mental hurdle of stepping outside a cozy house to the physical dangers of slipping on ice, and more. The great outdoors can be even more alarming when you experience chest pain in cold weather. While heart attacks can occur during any season, there is an increased risk for certain types of heart attacks during the cold weather months of winter.

Why do I get chest pain in cold weather?

A breath of cold, fresh, clean winter air can do wonders if you’re stuck indoors but it can also trigger spasms in the lung airways, making it harder to breathe, especially for those prone to asthma.

Other factors that can cause chest pain include a change in barometric pressure, low humidity, wind, and cold temperatures. These wintry conditions may trigger our bodies to respond negatively by increasing nervous system activity, narrowing our blood vessels, constricting the lung muscles and thickening our blood. Walking through heavy snow or bracing against blustery winds can feel like a workout and put an unanticipated strain on the heart.

For someone with an undiagnosed heart condition, simply breathing in cold air can lead to chest pain. During cold weather, blood vessels will constrict, which can raise your blood pressure and increase your risk of heart attack and stroke. This constriction makes your heart work harder to maintain a healthy body temperature. Wind and improper dress can make your body lose heat more quickly. When body temperature drops below 95 degrees, hypothermia can damage your heart muscle.

Do heart attacks increase in the winter?

Studies show that more cardiovascular issues occur during the colder months. There are several theories why heart attacks are more common in winter. First and foremost, the main risk factor for a heart attack any time of year is biological. If you are unaware of an underlying coronary artery disease, you may be at risk for a heart attack.

Angina, or chest pain due to coronary heart disease, can worsen in winter when coronary arteries constrict in the cold.

What are the signs of a heart attack?

Everyone should be aware of the major symptoms of a heart attack. Cold weather won’t increase your risk of a heart attack if you are an average healthy person but knowing the symptoms of heart attacks may save a life.

  • Pain or discomfort in the center or left side of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes or that goes away and comes back.
  • Pain or discomfort elsewhere in the body including the neck, back, one or both arms, or shoulders.
  • Feeling lightheaded or faint, nausea, or vomiting – you may also break out into a cold sweat.
  • Shortness of breath. This often comes along with chest discomfort, but shortness of breath also can happen before chest discomfort.
  • Unusual or unexplained tiredness.

If you or someone else experiences these symptoms, call 9-1-1 fast. It’s worth noting that women sometimes experience different symptoms than men and often feel pain in the jaw, neck or back. Women and people with diabetes are also at higher risk of silent heart attacks. Learn more about women and heart disease.

Be heart smart

During the winter months, it is important to continue leading a heart-healthy lifestyle, as you should all year. 

  • Maintain a heart-healthy diet, get regular aerobic exercise and reduce stress.
  • Manage heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, abnormal cholesterol, and tobacco use. 
  • Protect yourself from the cold temperatures and elements by dressing in layers and wearing appropriate clothing.
  • If you already have cardiovascular disease, avoid strenuous activities, such as shoveling heavy snow.
  • If you experience shortness of breath or chest discomfort, especially with activity, seek medical attention immediately to rule out a heart or blood vessel related problem.

Keep your heart safe this winter, and all year long. Learn how to lower your risk of heart disease.

Lifespan Cardiovascular Institute

The Lifespan Cardiovascular Institute at Rhode Island, The Miriam and Newport hospitals provides the highest level of diagnostic, interventional, surgical and rehabilitative cardiac care 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Our cardiovascular specialists work as a team, across all disciplines, combining their expertise to provide an individualized treatment plan for each patient.