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HealthWatch: Protecting Your Heart In Cold Weather

NEW YORK (CBS 2) -- Cold weather does more to you than just freeze your fingers and toes. It has a physical effect on your body, including your heart, and as the temperatures falls, your risk of having a heart attack rises.

CBS 2's Dr. Holly Phillips has more information on how to protect your heart from the cold effect.

Lorraine Johnson, 45, takes it easy when the mercury drops.

"When I'm walking in the very cold weather, I noticed my heart tends to beat a little bit faster," she said. "I get more exhausted, so to speak, in the cold weather. I feel as if I'm running a marathon."

"When it's cold weather, it's often very dry," Dr. Merle Myerson said. "So dry, cold weather is often more irritating to the heart and lungs."

Johnson has a heart condition, and she knows she has to be careful, but many people are unaware that winter weather can stress even healthy hearts.

"I think that's really interesting actually," one New Yorker said. "I mean, I didn't know that."

"You really don't associate cold – to me, I don't – cold with a heart attack or heart disease," said a woman from Long Island.

Prolonged exposure to cold temperatures reduces blood flow to your fingers and toes, and causes blood vessels in the body to narrow. This raises blood pressure and increases strain on the heart.

"Your heart is working a little bit harder, and can predispose to having a heart attack," Dr. Myerson said.

A recent British study found a direct correlation between dropping temperatures and rising risks of heart attack, but Dr. Myerson said there may be more at work than just the temperature.

"I'm not so sure if just 53-degree weather would have a significant impact on a patient's risk for having a heart attack," Dr. Myerson said. "Exertion is probably the more important thing, when people go out in cold weather and exert themselves."

People with coronary artery disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure are at the greatest risk.

"So while going out for a walk in any kind of weather is probably safe for most people, it's really exerting yourself, especially if you're out of shape or already have a heart problem," Dr. Myerson said.

The best advice, experts say, is to use common sense by limiting your exposure to extreme cold and strenuous activity.

"I know slow down, take it easy, take deep breaths, and then, after a while, I start to feel a little bit better," Johnson said.

It's also important to dress accordingly if you're going to be outdoors in the cold weather. If you feel unusual shortness of breath, chest pain or pressure, call your doctor. If your symptoms are severe, call 911.

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