How hot weather hurts our hearts

19 Aug

by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters

Welcome to Lotus Land, where, alas, it’s been stinkin’ hot lately. This is tragically unfair, I think. I moved here to Canada’s beautiful West Coast decades ago in order to escape the kind of soul-sucking sauna that passes for summer back east.

And because uncomfortably hot weather is so deliciously rare here, few of us even have air conditioning, although I do have a little electric fan that I’ve started carrying around the apartment with me from room to room this past week.

Since surviving a heart attack, I’ve learned a whole new reason to hate the heat.  I walk around feeling sick, clutching my little fan, a damp cloth pressed to the back of my neck, hot and cranky and looking like I’ve been hit by a very large bus. Here’s why heart patients can feel so much worse when those temperatures soar:  

Your Heart in the Heat

The heart is a fist-sized muscle that pumps blood through your arteries to all organs and tissues throughout your body. When ambient temperatures rise, the heart has to beat faster and work harder to pump blood to the surface of your skin to assist with sweating to cool your body.

If your body cannot cool itself enough, strain is put on the heart, and organs can begin to suffer damage – a potentially fatal condition known as heat stroke.

If You Have Heart Disease

Anyone can get heat stroke, but people with heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases are at greater risk.

If you have heart disease, your heart may not be able to work harder in the heat to maintain cooler body temperatures. Additionally, diuretics to reduce water in the bloodstream are prescribed for many heart conditions, as are beta blockers. Each of these medications can reduce a person’s ability to cool off in the heat.

Exercising in the Heat

Simple rule: when it’s dangerously hot outside, don’t do it, unless you’re exercising inside a comfortably air-conditioned building. If you’re used to exercising indoors or in cooler weather, take it easy at first when temperatures begin to climb. Don’t increase the length and intensity of your workouts if you experience any heat-related symptoms.

Drink plenty of fluids. Dehydration is a key factor in heat illness.

If you’re unfit or new to exercise, be extra cautious when working out in the heat at all, especially if you have a heart condition in which your body may already  have a lower tolerance to the heat. Reduce your exercise intensity and take frequent breaks in the shade to rest and drink water.

Both the exercise itself and the air temperature can increase your core body temperature. To help cool itself, your body sends more blood to circulate through your skin. This leaves less blood for your muscles, which in turn increases your heart rate. If the humidity is also high, your body faces added stress because sweat doesn’t readily evaporate from your skin. That pushes your body temperature even higher.

If you plan to exercise outside during hot and humid weather, wear very light, comfortable clothing and work out only in the very early morning or late evening if possible.

Know the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke (below). If any of these symptoms appear, stop exercising and cool down immediately by dousing yourself with cold water. You may need to get medical attention. Heat exhaustion can progress quickly to heat stroke, which can kill you.

Symptoms of Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is a medical emergency. If you experience the following symptoms, apply cool water to your skin immediately and seek medical help.

  • High fever
  • Hot, dry skin without sweating
  • Pounding pulse
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness

If you experience heavy sweating with cool, clammy skin, along with symptoms such as fatigue, muscle cramps, headache, nausea, or fainting, you may have heat exhaustion – a form of heat sickness that can lead to heat stroke.

Get out of the heat immediately. Fan your body and apply cool water to your skin, remove extra clothing or any sports equipment, and drink cool (not cold) water or a sports drink; these steps can help you stop heat exhaustion before it worsens.

If these symptoms strike, have someone stay with you if possible who can help monitor your condition.   If you don’t feel better within 30 minutes, contact your doctor.

Remember: if you have signs of heat stroke, seek immediate medical help.

Source: Mayo Clinic, The Heart and Stroke Foundtion, and The Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions

UPDATE:  Thanks to Texas cardiologist Dr. John P. Erwin III for sharing with us this study on the effect of hot weather on the heart:

  • Rapid decreases in barometric pressure are associated with the occurrence of acute myocardial infarction. The risk is likely highest in individuals with existing heart disease. – “Relation of Atmospheric Pressure Changes and the Occurrences of Acute Myocardial Infarction and Stroke”, Houck, Philip D. et al. American Journal of Cardiology , Volume 96 , Issue 1 , 45 – 51

Q: What’s your best tip to beat the heat?

19 Responses to “How hot weather hurts our hearts”

  1. Ernie Bevis January 20, 2017 at 5:51 pm #

    Having trouble breathing after triple bypass – do I need a hot or cold humidifier?


    • Carolyn Thomas January 21, 2017 at 7:43 am #

      Ernie, call your doctor right away to discuss this trouble breathing you’re having. Shortness of breath can be common at first after open heart surgery, especially for smokers or those who already had lung problems (sometimes relieved by deep breathing, walking or coughing) but just check with your doctor first to be on the safe side. Many of my readers tell me they have found relief with a steam vaporizer type of humidifier during the winter months when air is particularly dry.


  2. Stephanie Hammar July 14, 2016 at 3:33 pm #

    We have DRY heat here in Colorado. Not to mention high elevation makes us closer to the sun. It helps me to run my humidifier at night in the bedroom. Also, with Congestive Heart Failure, I cannot drink water all at once. So I keep a water bottle in every room & in the car.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas July 14, 2016 at 3:47 pm #

      Hi Stephanie! Excellent suggestion re your humidifier for dry heat at night. Stay cool and safe this summer….


  3. ORADRESNR March 7, 2016 at 6:58 pm #

    Excellent site, informative, open minded, professional and people friendly. I have learned more from it about my condition, microvascular disease, than from any doctor.

    I want to know whether I am at similar risk of heart attack as people with diagnosable heart disease? Should I have regular check ups and which ones? Can the worsening of the risk factor be diagnosed? When I have symptoms of angina or heart attack when and how do I decide whether to go to see a doctor or go to A@E? Did anyone investigate the link with brain supply of oxygen, in relation to stroke or even alzheimers?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas March 7, 2016 at 7:12 pm #

      Thanks for your kind words about my site. I’m not a physician so cannot comment specifically on your case, but I can say that in general you should have regular visits with your cardiologist if you have been already diagnosed with MVD. I can also tell you that I too live with MVD and have chest pain almost every day, sometimes several episodes per day. It takes some day-to-day experience to gauge which symptom is just “normal” refractory angina, and which symptom means you should seek immediate help. Otherwise, I’d be running to the Emergency Department every other day! I’m assuming you have a prescription for nitro for angina; you can learn more about this “wonder drug” here. And if you do a search on this site (upper right corner search box on the black background) for microvascular disease, you’ll fine more info on this diagnosis that may answer lots of your questions. Best of luck to you…


  4. petpost August 27, 2012 at 7:51 am #

    I live in Miami and the sweltering heat and humidity have affected me, to a much greater degree, after my cardiac event. Even walking can be difficult for some.


    • Carolyn Thomas August 27, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

      Stay cool – and safe during this hurricane season!


  5. Rachel Juby August 19, 2012 at 12:20 pm #

    Both of my kids are in soccer and I have to endure a lot of games in 90+ degrees here in Georgia. It is hard on all of us, but add health conditions and menopause hot flashes to the mix, it is almost unbearable.

    I found a product at my kids soccer equipment supply store. It is called Frogg Toggs(TM) Cooling Chilly Pad Towels. Just dip it in cold water and it stays freezing cold for hours, if the cooling effect wears off, just dip it again, wring it out and off you go. I have seen them on line and at Dicks Sporting goods, they run about $13 and come in all colors. I was told to run cold water over your wrist in a heat emergency, it instantly cools the entire body. Stay cool out there!


    • Carolyn Thomas August 19, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

      Your chilly pads remind me of a cooling cotton neck tie I bought years ago at a craft fair – thanks for the reminder! Here are the easy make-it-yourself instructions.

      Hope you’re also standing under a shade umbrella while cheering on your kids at the (hot) soccer pitch.


  6. Sra. Julia August 19, 2012 at 9:01 am #

    What a timely topic – I have been feeling like the same bus has hit me lately.

    I was in Baja MX temps in the 100-110 range and drove to Tucson AZ temps 100-107 range and the same bus has hit me.

    I have an appointment with my Cardiologist this week and we are going to talk about my symptoms, maybe if I hadn’t been in the heat I wouldn’t feel so bad? I seem to have more questions than the doctors have answers for, at least the ones I see.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas August 19, 2012 at 9:55 am #

      Oh my goodness – Mexico! Arizona! I feel way too hot just thinking about those kinds of temperatures. Hope you feel better soon.


      • Julia August 16, 2015 at 8:29 pm #

        For now I’m feeling fine, I stay out of the heat and under AC when the temperature is over 95 degrees. I seem to do better in the cool air.


  7. Mary August 19, 2012 at 8:20 am #

    As a Microvascular Disease person, I can attest that the heat can immediately “zap” me ~ whether that is a hot day, or a hot car; my body cannot rapidly adjust. My vascular system just can’t compensate. Just as it can’t compensate for exertion or emotion, temperature will do the same thing for me. Ditto for cold.

    I have a medical tip for people, but you will have to communicate to your doctor. PG&E has a rate adjustment allowance for medical equipment and medical necessity. For example, a CPAP is a medically required device, therefore, you would have a credit for EACH CPAP you might have in your home, one allowance per person.

    We recently had to add A/C to our home, because after 5 years of trying to do without it after ridding ourselves of the old one (to be green), I realize that I just function better and need less meds if I can stay cool.

    This summer, a heat wave confirmed this for me. I had more energy and was able to do housework instead of lying in a heap on the sofa all day. Again, the utility company will give you a baseline credit if your doctor signs off on it as “medically necessary”, as they would for asthma, for example.

    Ditto for the IRS. It is a tax deduction of a medically necessary piece of equipment, if your doctor will state that it is.

    Luckily, my cardiologist saw my point, though she had never encountered this request before.

    I suggest that any cardiac or CPAP patient consider employing these financial adjustments ~ because they help!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas August 19, 2012 at 8:28 am #

      Interesting – your cardiologist is basically writing you a prescription for your A/C.

      Like you describe, the heat zaps me relentlessly in a way that’s hard to describe to those who have never felt this. But overnight, the weather broke, we had a bit of a cooling rain shower (while outdoors watching fireworks at Butchart Gardens!) and this morning I feel like a new person. Yay!


  8. Dr. Elaine Schattner August 19, 2012 at 5:29 am #

    I’m a swimmer, but you’re right to remind me of the taxing effects of heat. Even walking can be difficult for some.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas August 19, 2012 at 6:30 am #

      Hi Dr. S – I think this is especially true during an unexpected heat wave when we think we can just carry on as usual!


  9. Magda August 19, 2012 at 5:12 am #

    Interesting post. I live in Miami and the sweltering heat and humidity have affected me, to a much greater degree, after my cardiac event.

    If I stand outside, even for a short while, my heart starts to race and I have difficulty breathing. My solution is to get indoors and into the air-conditioning quickly. Needless to say, I spend much of my time indoors. I have thought of moving to a colder and drier climate, but I have heard that the cold is bad as well. I have not lived in the cold for many years so I am unaware of its effects. Maybe your next post will discuss the cold weather? Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas August 19, 2012 at 6:40 am #

      You’re right, Magda – I frequently hear from heart patients who suffer terribly in cold winters. I did briefly cover cold weather here (exercising in the cold) and here (mall walking) but maybe I’ll take your advice and discuss the topic in more detail when winter starts!


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