SecondsCount Survival Guide:
Taking Care of Your Heart When Mother Nature Strikes
If you have heart disease, taking care of your heart is a job you have to do 365 days a year. In addition to monitoring your symptoms, taking your medications as prescribed, and following recommendations for a heart-healthy lifestyle, you have to be prepared to handle the curveballs Mother Nature sometimes throws. That means knowing how to handle extreme weather conditions, power outages, and natural disasters that might make it tough to get to the pharmacy, among other things.
To help you get prepared for, check out the SecondsCount Survival Guide, and keep it handy. You never know when you might need it!
When it gets really cold …
When temperatures drop, the heart has to work harder to help maintain your body’s core temperature. In fact, according to the American Heart Association, heart failure is the cause of most deaths from hypothermia - a dangerous condition in which the body’s temperature falls below normal.
While researchers aren’t exactly sure why, cold temperatures increase heart attack risk, too. Part of the reason might be that walking through heavy snow or lifting shovels full of snow can be unexpectedly strenuous work for anyone who only does those tasks occasionally. Some researchers think cold weather may influence the human body in other ways (such as hormones or blood vessel constriction) to also increase the likelihood of a heart attack.
Very cold weather is particularly dangerous for people with heart disease. This applies to babies and young children with complex congenital heart conditions as well.
Even if you do not have known heart disease, be sure to bundle up with layers of clothes when going outside, wear a hat to reduce heat loss from your head, and to go slowly when shoveling or doing other physically challenging tasks. If you know you have heart disease, the same warnings apply, but much more strongly. Before cold weather strikes, ask your doctor about safe levels of exposure to the cold and which activities should be left to someone without heart disease.
Symptoms to Watch For
Hypothermia and heart attack are both medical emergencies. If you suspect either, dial 9-1-1 immediately.
Heart attack symptoms
- Chest discomfort (Remember: not all people with heart attacks have chest pain.)
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
- Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort
- Breaking out in a cold sweat, or feeling nauseous or lightheaded
- Exhaustion or drowsiness
- Memory loss
- Fumbling hands
- Slurred speech
When seasonal allergies make you miserable …
If you are a heart patient and you also suffer from seasonal allergies, it is important that you discuss your over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription allergy medication options with your cardiologist. Your cardiologist will take into account your heart condition and the medications you are taking for it when recommending options for your allergies. It is especially important to avoid potentially dangerous drug interactions. Decongestants, for example, can increase blood pressure and heart rate and cause an irregular heart rhythm, or they can interfere with blood pressure medication.
Be sure your healthcare providers have the full list of all medications, vitamins, and herbal supplements you may be taking. This is essential to avoid potentially dangerous or detrimental drug interactions.
When lightning strikes …
When a person is hit by lightning, either through a direct strike or indirectly, damage can occur to organs and tissues throughout the body. In the heart, the electrical impulses that cause the heart to beat - essentially the heart’s natural pacemaker - are disrupted and can cause the heart to stop beating as it should. A lightning strike can also interrupt respiration. If a person is not breathing correctly, the body (including the heart and other organs) does not receive enough oxygen to function and organ damage and failure can begin immediately.
In the case of a lightning strike, it is critical that the injured person receive medical attention right away. Because a lightning strike can cause spinal injuries, it is important to assess the risk of spinal damage before moving the injured person.
Tips for Avoiding Lightning Strikes
- Indoors: Avoid corded telephone use during a lightning storm and contact with plugged-in electronics, plumbing, or any wires or pipes that extend to the outside of the building. Also avoid contact with concrete walls or flooring, as they may contain bars that can conduct lightning.
- Outdoors: Seek indoor shelter from lightning immediately - garages, pavilions, sheds, greenhouses, tents, etc., do not offer protection. If no building is available, get in your hard-topped vehicle. In cases where no indoor option is available, you can slightly reduce your risk of a lightning strike by staying away from open fields, isolated trees, water, and metal objects. Specifically:
- If you are out in the open and a forest is nearby, enter the forest and seek out a low stand of trees rather than tall trees.
- If you are caught in an open field and cannot reach a building or forest, find a low area, keep your head down, and crouch while on your feet to minimize the amount of your body that is touching the ground. Do not lie flat on the ground, as this puts you at greater risk of harm if lightning strikes the ground near you.
- Groups of people should spread out to lower the risk of everyone being hit by a single strike.
- When caught in a lightning storm in a boat without a cabin, stay as low as possible.
Your individual risk of a fatal lightning strike is very, very low. According to the National Weather Service, from 2001 to 2010, an estimated 40 deaths per year in the United States were a result of lightning strikes, with an additional 360 people per year suffering nonfatal injuries.
If your power goes out …
An electrical outage can happen at any time, knocking out not just communications but basic home services. If you are a heart patient, taking a little time now to prepare can save stress - and potentially your life - next time there is a power outage.
These suggestions can help you prepare for power outages:
- Telephone: If your only phone is a cell phone, keep the phone charged so you can call 911 if you were to experience a medical emergency during a power outage. If you have a landline phone, make sure you have at least one phone in the house that can operate on the landline without electricity. If possible retain both methods for calling in case of an emergency.
- Emergency contacts: During a power outage, you may not be able to access contact information online or in a list of contacts on your computer. Keep contact information for your physicians and your pharmacy written down on paper, and carry a copy with you in your wallet or purse. Include on the list the phone numbers for family or friends who serve as emergency contacts.
- Household temperature: If a power outage takes place in the summer and you rely on air conditioning to cool your home, apply cool water to your skin if air temperatures begin to climb. When possible, seek shelter somewhere that still has electricity: a nearby shopping mall, a friend’s house, a senior center, etc.
If you rely on electric heat in the winter, layer clothing to keep warm and be sure to have safe, alternate options for heating available - or stay with a friend or family member until power is restored.
Avoid opening and your refrigerator and freezer doors unless it is absolutely necessary, This is especially important if you are storing medications or baby formula that requires refrigeration. To prepare for a situation like this one, you may want to keep ice or frozen ice gel packs and a cooler on hand at all times.
- Drinking water: Everyone needs drinking water, but as a heart disease patient you will want to be particularly careful to take good care of yourself. If your house is supplied by an electric well-water pump, be sure to have on hand at least three days worth of drinking water (1 gallon per person per day) in case of a power outage.
Is your Emergency Supply Kit heart healthy?
While everyone should keep an emergency supply kit at home in case of a natural disaster or prolonged failure of city services, doing so is especially important for anyone with a chronic medical condition such as heart disease.
As a heart disease patient, a key component of your kit will be your medications. If a natural disaster strikes your home region, you may find that you cannot immediately leave your home to fill prescriptions, you may not be able to find a pharmacy that is open for business, or you may be forced to evacuate for a few days or weeks or more.
Keep a one-month supply of your heart medications in your supply kit, along with prescription information. This can free you from the stress of securing these needed medications during an emergency - and it can potentially save your life.
It is important to make sure the medications have not expired. Mark your calendar to refresh your medications (and other items) in your emergency supply kit periodically. You should also talk with your doctor or pharmacist about how and where to store supplies of the particular medications you are taking.
Tips for Building Your Emergency Supply Kit
Start with the basic list below to begin building your kit. Also, try tracking the items you use over the course of a week to help you think of items you might have forgotten, such as particular medications or types of medical equipment. Without making it a tedious assignment, jot down notes on items as you use them and add back-up supplies of these items where appropriate to your emergency supply kit.
Here’s a list to get you started:
- Water: one gallon per person per day, for a three-day supply
- Food: non-perishable food items, three-day supply (include a can opener if you keep canned goods in your kit)
- Contact information: written addresses and phone numbers for family, friends, and treating physicians
- Phone: if possible, a landline phone that does not require electricity
- Radio and batteries
- First-aid kit: basic over-the-counter (OTC) medications and bandages
- Medications: a one-month supply of prescription medications for heart disease and any other conditions, as well as prescription information. If your medications are supposed to be refrigerated, it may be a good idea to keep some ice or frozen ice gel packs on hand along with a cooler to store them in case you lose power for a long period.
- Personal hygiene items
- Flashlight and batteries
And when it gets really hot … (or if you live in, move to or travel to a destination with a hot climate)
When outdoor 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 can’t cool itself enough, strain is put on the heart, and organs can begin to suffer damage - a potentially fatal condition known as heat stroke.
Anyone can suffer 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. If you have a baby or young child with complex congenital heart disease, try to avoid exposing your child to extremely high temperatures.
Some medications prescribed to patients with heart conditions reduce water in the bloodstream. These medications can reduce a person’s ability to cool off in the heat. If you have been prescribed diuretics or beta-blockers, ask your doctor about safe levels of water to drink for hot conditions versus milder temperatures.
Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion
Heat exhaustion is a form of heat sickness that can lead to heat stroke. The symptoms include:
- Heavy sweating with cool, clammy skin
Symptoms of Heat Stroke
Heat stroke is an 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
- Nausea and/or vomiting
Getting out of the heat immediately, applying cool water to your skin, and drinking cool (not cold) water can help you stop heat exhaustion before it worsens.
Tips for Staying Safe in the Heat
Everyone is at risk in high heat, but the risks are even higher for those with heart disease or high blood pressure. A few simple tips can help you prevent both heat exhaustion and life-threatening heat stroke. Remember, while heat stroke may happen after only a short time in high temperatures, heat exhaustion results from days of exposure to high heat and can progress to heat stroke. Heat waves - long periods of hot weather - can make you ill more slowly and make it harder for you to realize the seriousness of your symptoms. Be mindful of how you feel each day during a heat wave.
Whether it’s a single hot day or a heat wave, remember these tips to stay cool and safe.
- Avoid vigorous physical activity in high heat. No task or exercise program is worth risking your life for. Make plans to complete a task when the weather cools. Move your exercise program to an indoor gym or pool.
- Stay hydrated by drinking water and sports drinks that contain electrolytes. Water is critical to all functions in your body. Electrolytes not only help balance hydration in your body, they also help keep the body’s natural electrical system that governs your heartbeat working correctly.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol. These beverages can contribute to dehydration.
- Choose a cooler environment. Switch your air conditioning on. If you don’t have air conditioning, use fans and periodically apply cool water to your skin. If your home is still not cool enough, go to an air-conditioned mall, senior center, friend’s house, or library - anywhere that’s cool enough to keep your body temperature within the normal range. Also, if you are not able to leave your home, do not be shy about asking for help from friends, family, or your local town or city services.
- Wear light-colored, lightweight clothing. Light-colored clothing reflects the sun’s rays, rather than absorbing them like dark clothing. Heavy-weight fabrics will trap body heat in, while lightweight fabrics allow heat to escape and better allow for your natural sweating processes to cool you off.
- Don’t go outside without sunblock. Apply sunblock before you go outside. A sunburn can make it harder for your body to stay cool.
Is it ever too hot for your heart to exercise?
Whenever the temperature reaches 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius) and the humidity is 70 percent or higher, your heart has to begin to work harder just to cool your body. When the outdoor temperature climbs into the 80s (Fahrenheit) or high 20s (Celsius) or beyond and there is high humidity, the risk to your health also rises. If you have heart disease, it is especially critical that you avoid exercising when the temperature and the humidity are both high. Consider delaying any intense exercise until the temperature has dropped and the humidity has reduced, or consider doing your doctor-approved exercise where the weather won’t be a problem, such as in air conditioning or in a swimming pool.
Another important issue to consider when planning your exercise for the summer months is that some common heart medications, such as beta blockers and diuretics, can also make you more susceptible to heat. Ask your doctor about summertime exercise guidelines that make sense for you based on your medical history and current prescribed medications.