"I only eat like this around the holidays."
"I don't drink very often, but there are so many social functions this time of year."
"I thought it was just heartburn. I didn't want to make a fuss and ruin everyone's good time."
Any of these sound familiar? They do to virtually every ER doc in the United States, some of whom coined the term "Christmas coronary" to describe the more than 30% increase in heart attacks and heart-related problems that occur in the winter — specifically on Christmas, the day after Christmas and on New Year's Day.
That's because many Americans celebrate the holidays with sudden binges of alcohol and food that puts added stress on weakened hearts. To make matters worse, they're more inclined at this time of year to ignore or mistake the warning signs of heart attack.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. Someone has a heart attack every 43 seconds. And the "Christmas Coronary" phenomenon doesn't discriminate — the 30% increase holds true for all ages and genders and can manifest in young people as dangerous heart rhythms.
6 stressors associated with holiday heart attacks:
- Overindulging in alcoholic beverages, rich foods and higher salt consumption increases blood pressure and water retention, putting additional strain on the heart. So does the 1- 2 pounds (on average) Americans gain during the holidays.
- Cold weather strains the heart by constricting blood vessels and increasing blood pressure and making blood clot more easily.
- Sudden strenuous outdoor activity in extremely cold weather, such as shoveling ice and snow, trudging through snow drifts or sledding with the kids, causes a spike in demand on the heart.
- Skipping or not taking medications on time can have dire consequences for people taking insulin or other medications for chronic conditions. Entertaining, social functions and travel can disrupt regular exercise and medication routines.
- Greater emotional stress and disrupted sleep during the holidays can weaken the immune system, making you more susceptible to colds and flu. Serious infections and fever can damage the heart muscle.
- Delaying treatment for symptoms of a heart attack so as not to disrupt holiday activities is never a good idea. Every second counts to save a life and prevent damage to heart tissue.
To reduce the risk of holiday heart attacks:
- Keep calm. Manage emotional stress and avoid anger.
- Stay well. Get a flu shot and wash hands frequently to prevent cold and flu.
- Eat right. Avoid food and alcohol binges, and select healthier food choices to reduce sodium.
- Keep moving. Continue normal exercise routines to maintain cardiovascular health and ward off weight gain. When engaging in outdoor activities, dress warmly, go slowly, rest often and listen to any warning signs your body is providing.
- Mind the time. Stay on schedule with prescription medications, and if traveling, be sure to carry enough for the trip (in original prescription bottles) plus a few extra in case of delays.
- Stay warm. Dress in layers for the weather and avoid heavy physical exertion in the cold.
Know the symptoms of a heart attack and call 911 immediately if you experience:
- Chest pain or discomfort.
- Pain or discomfort in the arms or shoulder.
- Shortness of breath.
- Feeling weak, lightheaded or faint.
- Women are more likely to also feel pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck or back.
- Women may also experience unusual tiredness, nausea or vomiting.
The best part of the holidays is being healthy to enjoy them. So have fun, enjoy time with friends and family and stay heartwise.
For fast, emergency help when you need it most, look to one of our many Medical City ER locations across North Texas. With average wait times posted online, if you do have an emergency, you can spend less time waiting and more time on the moments that matter most.
Heart Disease Fact Sheet and Heart Attack Signs and Symptoms - CDC.gov
The Truth Behind More Holiday Heart Attacks, Katherine Kam - WebMD.com
This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.
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