According to our expert—Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine and biological chemistry, Johns Hopkins Medicine—Heart attacks typically increase during the winter.

Winter Diabetes Focus Image

Winter brings a 20 to 53 percent spike in strokes and heart attacks. One possible reason: Blood vessels constrict (narrow) when it's cold, causing a rise in blood pressure, which makes the heart work harder. Constrictions in arteries supplying blood to the heart and brain, along with the higher blood pressure, can cause plaques (cholesterol deposits) lining these arteries to rupture. This can lead to a clot that blocks blood flow to the heart or brain, resulting in heart attack or stroke.

Some winter activities place additional burden on the heart. Take snow shoveling. Such exertion in the cold increases the body's need for oxygen, so the heart has to put forth more effort at a time when its blood supply is limited by constricted arteries.

Winter's higher rates of influenza (flu) may also play a part. How? Severe inflammation associated with flu may cause the process of plaque rupture and blood clot that can lead to a heart attack. Heart attacks cause a large percentage of annual flu deaths (anywhere from 3,300 to 49,000) in the U.S. At greatest risk are seniors and those with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes.

To safeguard your heart:

  • Avoid vigorous activity such as pushing a stranded car during cold weather, especially if you have coronary heart disease.
  • Dress warmly and always wear a hat.
  • Take blood pressure medication as directed.
  • Get a flu vaccine at the start of the season.
  • Wash your hands well with soap and water or apply germ-killing hand sanitizer if exposed to coughing or sneezing.
  • Limit contact with people who are sick and don't touch your eyes, nose or mouth.

Adapted from our sister publication Diabetes Focus Winter 2012

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 19 Nov 2012

Last Modified: 19 Nov 2012