August 15, 2023

As temperatures rise, so does the risk of heart problems

A Kaiser Permanente cardiologist shares advice on how to stay safe, what to watch for, and when to seek medical care.

People with cardiovascular disease are at greater risk.

Average temperatures are rising around the world. That could mean an increased risk of heart problems for people with certain medical conditions, according to Malini Nadadur, MD, a Kaiser Permanente cardiologist in Northern California.

“High temperatures can really increase the effects of cardiovascular risk on our patients,” she said.

Dr. Nadadur shared tips on how to keep cool and protect yourself during hot weather.

Who is most susceptible to extreme heat, and why?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the interaction between heat and cardiovascular disease contributes to about a quarter of heat-related deaths. People with preexisting cardiovascular disease — including prior heart attack, heart failure, and irregular heart rhythms ― are most at risk.

What is the body’s response?

On hot days, your body has to work harder to regulate its temperature, which puts a bigger burden on your cardiovascular system. The most common result is heat exhaustion or heat stroke. In more extreme cases, people may have heart attacks, heart arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat), or heart failure.

People with cardiovascular disorders may take medications such as beta blockers and diuretics that further hinder their ability to effectively manage heat.

How hot is too hot?

There is no exact temperature that defines “too hot” because it depends on many factors. If you feel overly hot, your body is telling you to get out of the heat. During prolonged days of extreme heat, more people are admitted to hospitals with heart attacks and other cardiovascular conditions.

How can you head off a heat and heart health crisis?

First, always listen to your body. If it says you are hot, you need to take action. Be aware of how long you are in the heat and how much you’re exerting yourself.

  • Keep your temperature low by getting out of the sunlight and going someplace cool. Lower your temperature with a cool shower or bath.
  • Stay hydrated. Once you start feeling the heat, drink an 8-ounce glass of water every 20 minutes. If you’re thirsty, that’s your body signaling that you are already becoming dehydrated, and that strains your cardiovascular system. Avoid alcohol or drinks with excessive amounts of caffeine or sugar.
  • Dress in light-colored and loose-fitting clothing. Wear a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen when outdoors.
  • Watch for the symptoms of heat-related illnesses. The first is typically a headache. Others include dry mouth, dizziness, decreased urination, fatigue, confusion, and heart palpitations. Chest pain is a sign of a heart attack.
  • If you’re having these symptoms and things don’t feel right, be proactive in seeking medical help immediately.

How can you exercise in spells of extreme heat?

You can still stay fit when temperatures rise. Try walking in the early morning or evening when temperatures are cooler, working out in an air-conditioned gym, swimming indoors or outdoors with a sun covering, or walking in an indoor mall or a superstore.

The more you know and listen to your body, the more confident you can feel in staying healthy in the heat.