Does Cold Weather Affect AFib?
A common question I get is whether cold weather and atrial fibrillation have any relation. We’re well into wintertime now in the United States and many of us are outside in frigid temperatures. So, the question is, does cold weather actually have an effect on atrial fibrillation? Do people get more frequent episodes of AFib during the wintertime?
There was a review article published in 2015 that concluded that cold weather DOES, in fact, increase the incidence of AFib episodes in patients. The article reviewed approximately 15 different studies and the increase in hospitalizations for AFib ranged anywhere from 20% to up to 300% percent during the wintertime period, depending on which individual study that was reviewed.
In addition, that same 2015 study also uncovered an increased risk of stroke for patients who have AFib episodes during the wintertime periods. The increased risk of stroke ranged anywhere from 20% all the way to up to 200% depending on the individual study. There was also an additional study in 2018, recently published, which showed also an increased risk of stroke for patients who have AFib during the wintertime periods. That particular study found a 20% increased risk of stroke for patients suffering from AFib episodes in the wintertime.
So why does this all happen? Why do people get episodes of AFib during the wintertime?
Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer. It's still undetermined if the cold temperatures by themselves affect a person's atrial fibrillation.
However, what is more commonly associated with the wintertime that can trigger episodes of AFib are the increased illnesses that occur this time of year such as colds, cases of flu, or cases of pneumonia. People who have respiratory problems like COPD or emphysema are most likely to experience an exacerbation of that disease during the wintertime.
So in the wintertime, increased AFib episodes are more likely linked to illness than the cold weather itself. If you get a cold, the flu, or pneumonia, which are much more common in the winter months, that can increase your risk for episodes of AFib and an increased risk of AFib-related hospitalizations due to the severity of the episode.
Regarding the increased risk of stroke, I mentioned two studies that showed an increased risk of stroke during the wintertime. Why is that?
There is a theory that the small clotting proteins that are present in blood, which help the blood clot, are produced at a higher volume by the body during the wintertime, in turn making blood thicker in general. This may increase the risk of stroke during the wintertime.
So, what can you do to have a safe winter season?
My biggest tip is to stay warm. Wear layers, minimize time outside in the extreme cold as best as possible. It’s also very important to minimize contact with sick individuals. This may prove difficult because many people experience an increased incidence of colds, cases of flu, and cases of pneumonia during the wintertime. However, this step is crucial to maintaining your own health this cold weather season.