“Christmas coronary” is a term coined by doctors who noticed a disturbing pattern: heart attacks and heart-related problems peaking every year over the winter holiday season — specifically on Christmas, the day after Christmas and New Year’s Day.
In fact, studies show that the number of heart attacks increases across ages and genders by more than 30 percent in the winter, but why? Some of it can be attributed to factors you can fight or control, like these six holiday stressors:
1. Cold temperatures. Cold weather causes your blood vessels to constrict in your arms and legs, making your heart work harder. It can also cause the blood vessels to your heart to spasm, temporarily depriving the heart of oxygen.
- What to do: Layer up! Keep your arms, head and feet warm –- these parts of the body tend to be forgotten but can easily get quite cold. Be especially mindful of older family members. The elderly are less likely to notice how cold they really are until they’ve lost significant amounts of body heat.
2. Overexertion. Winter provides the opportunity for unique activities like snow shoveling, trudging through snowdrifts or sledding. Suddenly becoming active in the cold weather causes a spike in demand on your heart. In addition, the mere act of lifting a heavy snow shovel increases your blood pressure, which makes someone with heart disease even more at risk of having a heart attack.
- What to do: Go slowly, take breaks and ditch the supersized shovel. Consider a snow blower or give a call to your friendly neighborhood teenager to shovel for you.
3. Nonstop food feasts. Thanks to holiday meals, treats and parties full of carbs and sweets, people tend to have higher blood pressure and cholesterol in the winter – the very factors that drive a heart attack.
- What to do: Give yourself some boundaries—for example, only eat two pieces of mom’s special fudge or one piece of apple pie. Or maybe indulge at one party, but not the other.
4. Alcohol. Holiday spirits can lead to “holiday heart syndrome” if you’re not careful.
- What to do: Binge drinking for even short periods (just a couple of days over the holidays) has been shown to trigger dangerous heart rhythms, including supraventricular tachycardia or atrial fibrillation – even in totally healthy people. Moderation is key. Anyone can be at risk for holiday heart trouble.
5. Ignoring symptoms. It’s a common excuse: “All the family is here right now” or “I don’t want to spend Christmas Eve in the ER” or “I have 30 guests coming this evening.” Health problems never come at convenient times, and the holidays make those surprises seem even more inconvenient.
- What to do: Don’t let the holidays cause you to ignore symptoms for which you’d seek treatment at any other time of the year, like chest pain, shortness of breath accompanied by pain radiating down your arm or breaking out into a cold sweat. Also remember that women, people with diabetes and the elderly may have atypical symptoms like nausea, vomiting or feeling fatigued.
6. Catching a bug. ‘Tis the season for gifts, family -- and the flu. Illnesses can put excess pressure on your heart -- especially if you already have heart problems -- increasing the risk of a heart attack.
- What to do: Get the flu vaccine. Increase your hand hygiene vigilance. Lastly, if you think you may have the flu, call your doctor early on (within the first 24-48 hours) to see if you could be a candidate for an antiviral medication.
Gary Daniel, M.D. is an Interventional Cardiologist with Heart of Georgia Cardiology in Dublin and Macon, Georgia, and is on the medical staff at Fairview Park Hospital.