Holiday Heartburn or Heart Attack?

If you’re like most Americans, the holidays bring hectic obligations, family reunions, and over indulgence. It seems everywhere we turn there’s candy and sweets, parties with an overabundance of food, and lots of glad tidings with toasts of alcohol. Combine that with work and a little lack of sleep and it’s no wonder the holidays can seem stressful. Also not so surprising that the number of fatal heart attacks peak the highest on Christmas, the day after Christmas, and New Year’s Day, according to a national study reported in the American Heart Association’s Circulation Journal.

This holiday season, if you or a family member have chest pain or upper abdominal pain, don’t assume it’s just indigestion. It could be cardiac ischemia, which has similar symptoms to heartburn, but could lead to a heart attack.

Why Christmas and New Year’s Are Bad for Your Heart

Some possible reasons for increased fatal heart attacks on these holidays, as cited by the Journal, include:

  • Increased emotional stress
  • Overindulgence of food, salt, fats, and alcohol
  • Increased respiratory problems: upper respiratory infection, influenza, and particulate matter from word-burning fireplaces
  • Colder weather, leading to increased vascular resistance, coronary spasm, hemostasis, and thrombus formation

“Another major reason is that when people have symptoms around the holidays, many tend to delay going to the emergency room because it’s inconvenient to take time out from the festivities, travel, or party,” said Dr. Marco Coppola, Chief Medical Officer. “However, if it turns out to be a heart issue, delaying treatment can cause more extensive heart damage or fatality.”

Symptoms of Heart Attack

First, know that symptoms vary from person to person. Second, some heart attacks begin with no symptoms at all. Third, women have additional symptoms to watch out for.

Common warning signs:

  • Chest discomfort that feels like pressure, fullness, or a squeezing pain that lasts for more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back
  • Pain and discomfort that go beyond your chest to other parts of your upper body, like one or both arms, or your back, neck, stomach, teeth, and jaw
  • Unexplained shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort

Other symptoms:

  • Cold sweats
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Lightheadedness
  • Anxiety
  • Indigestion
  • Unexplained fatigue

Gender specific symptoms:

Women are more likely than men to have pain in the:

  • Jaw
  • Neck
  • Shoulder
  • Upper back
  • Abdomen

Sometimes women have no pain at all and only have vague symptoms such as feeling fatigued or “just not feeling well.”

Know When To Go To the Emergency Room

Remember, you aren’t likely to experience all the symptoms above. If you have chest discomfort, especially if you also have one or more of the other signs, call 911 or have someone take you to the nearest emergency room immediately. Additional advice:

  • Don’t drive yourself to the emergency room.
  • Don’t dismiss what you feel. The risk is too great to worry about leaving the holiday festivities for a while.

Practice Heart-Healthy Holidays

These simple precautions may help you and your family members ward off holiday heart attacks:

  • Avoid excessive physical exertion.
  • Avoid spending much time in very cold temperatures.
  • Avoid binging on foods with excess salt or fats, as well as alcohol and tobacco.
  • Avoid exposure to respiratory pollutions and illnesses; and get a flu shot.
  • Avoid things that make your blood pressure spike.

Remember, the best holidays are those when you and your loved ones are healthy and safe.

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