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How The Cold Is Silently Killing Australians

Wintry weather can bring wild storms and a spike in sickies -- but there's a silent, potentially deadly, threat sending thousands of Australians to the emergency department.

Breathlessness, fatigue and swollen ankles are sometimes dismissed as signs of getting older- - but they can also be symptoms of heart failure, and ignoring them could land you in hospital.

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It's a scenario Adelaide man Grant Dewar knows too well. He had successfully lost weight and thought he was on the road to getting healthier, until he wound up in the emergency department.

"One day I basically couldn't lie down and breathe at the same time, and my doctor basically said 'call an ambulance, go to hospital'," he told 10 News First.

"I was diagnosed with having heart failure that was pretty severe. We thought it was just a chest infection but the problem is, heart failure is a silent killer."

Over 20,000 Australians have been hospitalised for heart failure this winter. Photo: Getty

The condition affects half a million Australians, and that figure is expected to reach 650,000 by 2025, according to a new report by Novartis Australia.

The study also revealed more people are hospitalised for heart failure during winter than at any other time of year. Already this season, 21,400 people have been admitted to emergency departments suffering heart failure -- five thousand more than during summer.

Report author Professor Simon Stewart says our lifestyles during the chilly weather is partly to blame.

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"In winter, as we know, we exercise less, we're a little bit fatter," Stewart told 10 News First.

"But also [winter] has a direct effect on the body. The heart has to work harder in the cold weather."

So if you find it hard to get out of bed during the chilly months, there's a scientific reason for it.

"Breathing in cold air also decreases blood flow to the heart, so it's a combination of increased work and decreased blood supply," cardiologist Dr James Gunton told 10 News First.

All of this has the potential for a deadly outcome, particularly during the horror flu season being felt across the country.

"Add on top of it an external stress, like an infection such as the flu, and that combination can often cause people to spiral downwards," Gunton said.

Heart failure is particularly deadly when combined with the flu. Photo: Getty

The best way to protect yourself from heart failure is to keep fit and healthy, especially when it's cold.

"Make sure you have that balanced diet, you don't put on too much weight and if you do have heart disease go and see your GP or your specialist and make sure you're on the right treatment," Stewart said.

People should also be on alert for the warning signs.

"Being short of breath at night is something we should be aware of, the other one is fluid accumulation, generally in the ankles and in the abdomen and sometimes bloating," said Gunton.

"And non-specific fatigue as well, so the combination of those things, would be highlighting to you to go and see your local medical officer."

Contact the author: tryan@networkten.com.au 

Feature image: Getty