Cold Weather Health Tips for Seniors

Brrrr! Winter is upon us. No doubt about it and for seniors, in general, dealing with the cold may be more difficult, especially for those who have chronic health problems and disabilities.

November is COPD Awareness Month

November is COPD Awareness Month. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is the term that refers to several progressive lung diseases that lead to breathing problems and increasing breathlessness. Cold winter weather presents real challenges for people with COPD. To read more about COPD and about a special new breakthrough Zephyr valve that can help COPD patients to return to a more normal life please see our blog post from September 1, 2018.

Lungs and Cold Winter Weather

The American Lung Organization has tips to protect your lungs in the bitter cold dry air. Dry air can irritate breathing passages and make real health problems for people with lung diseases like asthma, COPD or bronchitis. For instance, cold air can trigger an asthma attack. Also, winter indoor heating dries up the nasal and breathing passages and this also can make one more prone to catching colds and the flu. Here are some tips:

  • Get a flu shot and since it is not 100% protective against the flu, also try to avoid closed overheated places with crowds of people, especially places where there may also be sick people.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a loose scarf that is made of breathable material like cotton or wool. This will warm the air before you breathe it and protect you from blasts of wind that can literally carry your breath away.
  • Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  • Carry medicines like bronchodilators with you if you have asthma or COPD.
  • Before setting out, let family members know where you are going and carry a cell phone with you.
  • Cold air does not mean fresher air, as air pollution can climb to very high levels in the winter, especially in areas where people use a lot of wood burning stoves and fireplaces, so do not venture out when there are air pollution alerts.

Increase in Heart Attacks in Winter

Cold freezing air is also hard on the heart. The lungs and heart have to work harder. Cold weather raises blood pressure. In fact, emergency rooms gear up in the winter for extra cases, as there is an increase in heart attacks, especially following snowfalls, for people who suffer heart attacks while shoveling snow. Even people with no known heart disease can suffer a heart attack when shoveling snow in the frigid cold air, although they may also have the usual risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking and being male and over the age of 55.  Also, many people who go out to shovel snow have been living a more or less sedentary lifestyle, so they are not in good physical shape to begin with and then they embark on a venture that requires a lot of physical stamina and the exertion can trigger a heart attack.. While many people prefer using a snow blower to shoveling, this also requires some physical stamina, which can also lead to heart problems. Here are some snow shoveling tips:

  • Warm up your muscles before beginning. You can do these warm ups inside your home.
  • Wear non-slip boots.
  • Do not drink any alcoholic beverages before going outside, while you are shoveling snow or after you finish. Alcohol may disguise signs of hypothermia.
  • Even if you think you are a big strong man or woman, shovel lots of small light loads instead of a few big heavy ones.
  • Take lots of breaks.
  • Drink enough water. Even though you may not feel thirsty you must make certain to drink because you are doing physical work.
  • Don’t be obsessive about clearing away every drop of snow. Remember more is going to fall again.
  • If you feel any change in your health like dizziness, feeling light-headed or experiencing any kind of pain, stop and go inside. Don’t tell yourself it is just from exercising if you experience any pain in your arm, shoulder, neck, chest or back and don’t continue shoveling with the “show must go on” attitude.
  • Phone 911 even if you have only slight chest, arm, shoulder or neck pain. Better to be told by a doctor that it is only strained muscles than to ignore what may be warning symptoms of a heart attack.

Injuries from Shoveling Snow and Falls

Many injuries also happen to people who are shoveling snow such as falls that lead to cuts, sprained tendons, torn ligaments, muscle sprains, back injuries and head injuries, as well as broken bones from shoveling snow. Being hit by the shovel is also very common and this leads to all kinds of injuries depending on where the person was hit. A 17-year study published January, 2011, in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine showed that about 11,500 injuries and medical emergencies including heart attacks send people to the Emergency Room (ER) every year from shoveling snow.

Heart Disease, COPD and Long-term Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Care

Since COPD is a progressively deteriorating disease and also may raise the risk for coronary heart disease, the day may come when it is time to consider long-term skilled nursing care.

The Van Duyn Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Syracuse New York

The Van Duyn Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Syracuse, New York is a skilled rehabilitation and nursing care facility in Syracuse, New York that has a special respiratory wellness program under a team of expert professional respiratory therapists. Van Duyn also has wonderful recreational programs.


Since winter and shoveling snow can lead to a heart attack, breathing problems and all kinds of injuries and fractures, it pays to heed the warnings and not overdo shoveling snow in the cold. If you are in doubt about how much physical exercise you can do outside in the winter, especially shoveling snow, then ask your doctor.


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