With Andrew Watson of Goodmeasure Pharmacy, Parkgate
We all know that winter is the season for colds, flu, norovirus and other miserable illnesses. But a less well known fact is that the danger of having a heart attack is increased in the cold weather.
This is because your heart has to pump harder to keep you warm which also increases your blood pressure. As the mercury drops, blood vessels narrow and cholesterol levels rise, perhaps because our diet changes and we eat richer, fattier food, especially around Christmas. Digging cars out of the snow and energetically clearing drives can make matters worse.
Coronary Heart Disease
Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) is the main cause of heart attacks. The blood vessels in the heart become coated with cholesterol called plaques. If one of these plaques breaks off it can produce a blood clot which blocks the arteries. When this happens, the heart muscle becomes starved of blood and starts dying.
The usual symptom of a heart attack is pain and a feeling of heavy pressure in the chest. The pain may radiate down the arms or to the neck and jaw accompanied by difficulty breathing, weakness, anxiety and feeling lightheaded.
If a heart attack is suspected it is important to dial 999 and, whilst waiting for the ambulance to arrive, chew a 300 mg (or four 75 mg) soluble Aspirin tablet. This helps thin the blood and improves circulation to the heart. Do not drive alone to hospital, or even have someone to drive you there, as the first responders have equipment and experience to help.
Sudden Coronary Arrest
A much more serious life threatening event is a Sudden Coronary Arrest (SCA). This is not the same as a heart attack, but a heart attack may lead to one so that is why heart attacks should be dealt with quickly. Usually SCA comes on with no warning. The person collapses suddenly and the heart stops pumping so no blood is flowing round the body. Death can occur if treatment is not started at once.
The reason is that the rhythm of the heart is immediately disturbed and it goes into ventricular fibrillation. The risk factors are a family history of SCA or heart disease, age (over 45 for a man, 55 for a woman), stress or exertion.
Quick action is very necessary to save a life. So dial 999, shout for help, and start CPR. This involves 30 compressions to the chest followed by two rescue breaths. How to do it can be found on the British Heart Foundation’s website.
The operator will tell you if there is an external defibrillator within 600 metres of your location and give the code to access it. The operator will stay on the line and the defibrillator also has verbal instructions for easy use. Two adhesive electrodes need to be attached to the patient’s bare chest; these allow the machine to monitor the heart and give an electric shock when required.
It is essential that no one touches the patient when the shock is being administered. Never leave the patient alone, carry on with CPR until the ambulance arrives.
It is a good idea to see whereabouts on a building your nearest defibrillators are located, this can save vital minutes if you do need to use one
Start-a-Heart 24/7 is a local charity dedicated to supporting communities acquire defibrillators in external safe boxes. Within Rotherham, the charity can provide the safe box free of charge and supply the defibrillator at a substantially reduced price. They are also willing to give talks about how to use the units. Their website also has information
So how do we keep our hearts in the best condition we can?
Eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grain cereals, oily fish and unsaturated fats such as sunflower seed oil or olive oil helps reduce cholesterol levels. Whereas a diet with lots of saturated fats such as pies, biscuits, fatty meat, lard and cream increases cholesterol levels. Also if you have been prescribed a medication for reducing cholesterol it is important to take this.
Stopping smoking is also highly recommended, as is limiting your alcohol consumption to 14 units a week for men and women.
Try to do regular but not too vigorous exercise such as swimming, walking or cycling. If you are not used to exercise, suddenly doing something really strenuous could bring on a heart attack.
Keep your blood pressure down if you can by avoiding or coping with stress, perhaps do yoga or study mindfulness. Again take any medication prescribed by your GP for high blood pressure.
Just recently, Magna’s Chief Executive, John Silker, sadly passed away from a SCA. Another local figurehead, Stuart Lister, also died from a SCA and his wife Trish is the founder of Start-a-Heart; she continues to work hard to provide defibrillators for Rotherham and has had a lot of support from various groups and individuals, but more are needed. This has made more people aware of SCA and we would like to remember them in this article.