American Heart Association warns of snow-shoveling health hazards

3/8/2018, 12:43 p.m.
The American Heart Association says that for most people, shoveling snow might not lead to any health problems.
PSP members shoveling snow in Harlem in February

The American Heart Association says that for most people, shoveling snow might not lead to any health problems. However, the association warns that the risk of a heart attack during snow shoveling might increase for some, stating that the combination of colder temperatures and physical exertion increases the workload on the heart.

People who are outdoors in cold weather should avoid sudden exertion, such as lifting a heavy shovel full of snow. Even walking through heavy, wet snow or snow drifts can strain a person’s heart.

For those who are sedentary, or people with existing heart conditions such as heart failure, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, the increased workload on the heart from activities such as shoveling heavy snow can put them at higher risk for heart attack—when a clot blocks blood flow to a heart artery, causing heart muscle damage or tissue death. It is a life-threatening medical emergency.

To help make snow removal safer, the American Heart Association has compiled a list of practical tips.

Give yourself a break. Take frequent rest breaks during shoveling so you don’t overstress your heart. Pay attention to how your body feels during those breaks.

Don’t eat a heavy meal before or soon after shoveling. Eating a large meal can put an extra load on your heart.

Use a small shovel or consider a snow thrower. The act of lifting heavy snow can raise blood pressure acutely during the lift. It is safer to lift smaller amounts more times than to lug a few huge shovelfuls of snow. When possible, simply push the snow.

Learn the heart attack warning signs and listen to your body, and even if you’re not sure it’s a heart attack, have it checked out (tell a doctor about your symptoms). Minutes matter! Fast action can save lives—maybe your own.

Don’t wait more than five minutes to call 9-1-1.

Don’t drink alcoholic beverages before or immediately after shoveling. Alcohol might increase the sensation of warmth and cause you to underestimate the extra strain your body is under in the cold.

Consult a doctor. If you have a medical condition, don’t exercise on a regular basis or are middle aged or older, meet with your doctor before the first anticipated snowfall.

Be aware of the dangers of hypothermia. Heart failure causes most deaths in hypothermia. To prevent hypothermia, dress in layers of warm clothing, which traps air between layers forming a protective insulation. Wear a hat because much of your body’s heat can be lost through your head.

Heart attack warning signs

Some heart attacks are sudden and intense—the “movie heart attack,” when it is clear what’s happening. But most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Often people affected aren’t sure what’s wrong and wait too long before getting help. Here are signs that can mean a heart attack is happening:

Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.