By Dr. Eben Eno
Cardiologist, cares for patients at Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital Ozaukee and Milwaukee campuses.
This summer, we’re all looking forward to getting outdoors, enjoying Wisconsin’s beautiful parks, beer gardens and Lake Michigan beaches. But, heart health during summer months can be tricky business. It’s important to remember how the summer heat – especially after a cold, snowy winter – can cause our hearts to work harder. It can put us at risk of dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. This is especially true if you or a loved one already suffers from a heart condition such as coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure or atrial fibrillation.
Living with heart disease doesn’t mean that you have to do without summer fun or avoid the outdoors all summer long. It does mean that you should take some precautions to maintain your heart health. With a few simple steps, you can enjoy all your favorite outdoor activities while keeping your heart healthy this summer.
The effects of heat on your heart
Heat and humidity are two big challenges for our hearts during the summer. These factors make it more difficult for your heart to pump blood throughout the body and keep you cool. As your heart pumps harder and strains to maintain your body temperature, your body simultaneously produces sweat to help the cooling process. The production of excessive sweat can lead to extreme dehydration.
This dehydration and added stress on the heart can lead to serious heat-related illnesses, like heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Symptoms of these issues include dizziness, nausea, cramps and rapid heartbeat—and in some cases, they can be deadly. When your heart is stressed, it can also potentially trigger an acute exacerbation of any pre-existing cardiac conditions.
Heart disease and medications can make you more heat sensitive
It’s important to be aware that if you already have a heart condition, some heart medications may make it harder for your body to cool down. For example, beta-blockers are critical for treatment of many cardiac conditions, but do slow your heartbeat and can make it more difficult to regulate heat exchange throughout the body. Other medications to be mindful of are diuretics, ace receptor blockers, ace inhibitors and calcium channel blockers which can make low blood pressure or dehydration more likely. If you have any questions about how your medications may affect you in the summer heat, call your doctor.
How to protect your heart in summer heat
Staying hydrated is one of the best things you can do to protect your heart health during summer months. Proper hydration helps your heart pump blood to the muscles throughout your body. To make sure you are hydrated, carry a bottle of water with you indoors and outdoors. Also try to avoid excessive alcohol and caffeine consumption, as they can accelerate dehydration. If you have been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, talk to your cardiologist or primary care doctor to determine how much water you should consume, as this can sometimes vary depending on the severity of your condition.
Minimize heat exposure during peak heat times, usually noon to 4 p.m. The first thing is to make sure that you check the heat index regularly. This is a measurement of what the temperature outside feels like with humidity. Keep an eye on this, and when the heat index reaches potentially dangerous levels, avoid going outside.
You should also avoid exercising during extreme heat. In hot weather, exercising in the heat leads to dehydration, and the stress from overheating can put an added strain on the heart.
As a general rule, exercise early in the morning, then try to stay indoors in an air conditioned space during the hottest hours of the day.
Keep your heart healthy and prevent heat-related illness
If you feel or notice someone experiencing the symptoms of a heat-related illness or a heart issue, act immediately. For heat exhaustion, move to a cool place, drink water and monitor the condition. For heat stroke and heart issues, call 911, as the situation could be life-threatening.
With the right preparations, you can keep your heart healthy while enjoying a great summer filled with outdoor fitness and activities.