Yes, You Can Die From Shoveling Snow

Physical exertion and cold temperatures can be a deadly combo.
Steve Mason via Getty Images

Middle-aged denizens of the Northeast should take extra care after last weekend’s Winter Storm Jonas, according to heart experts.

The storm has resulted in roughly 20 deaths, according to The New York Times. Six of those people died while shoveling snow or shortly afterward, and at least two of them had suffered either a cardiac arrest or a heart attack.

This isn't unusual. Snow shoveling is uniquely deadly for middle-aged, sedentary people because of the risk it poses to the heart. The mix of intense physical exertion and weather so cold it can constrict blood vessels can be a fatal mix for people who are usually sedentary or are at an elevated risk for heart attack. While heart attacks from snow shoveling are relatively rare, they are the most dangerous kind of injury that can result from the winter chore.

Americans make approximately 11,500 visits to the emergency room every year due to snow shoveling injuries, which can include fractures, soft-tissue injuries and even cardiac symptoms, according to a 17-year study published in 2011. While heart-related injuries only make up about seven percent of these visits, they were responsible for 100 percent of the 1,647 snow shoveling-related fatalities recorded in the study. The cardiac symptoms were most likely to strike men over 55 years old.

In order to prevent cardiac symptoms while shoveling snow, the American Heart Association advises people to take frequent breaks and use a small shovel while working, as lifting large amounts of snow can spike blood pressure. If at all possible, push the snow instead of shoveling it. People should also avoid eating a heavy meal beforehand, and avoid alcohol both before and after the shovel session.

But the most important precaution shovelers should take is to first educate themselves on the signs and symptoms of heart trouble, so that they know to seek medical attention immediately if anything happens, according to the AHA. These symptoms include chest discomfort that feels like pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain, as well as nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath and pain in the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach.

People who are at high risk of a heart attack, like smokers, people who don't exercise, and those with a history of heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, should ask their doctor before shoveling snow.

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