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Holiday heart attacks: the signs and symptoms you shouldn’t ignore



It’s not what anyone wishes to hear as we approach the end of the year, but research has found that there’s an uptick in heart-related deaths during the Christmas and New Years holidays. People die the most from heart attacks in the last week of December compared to any other time of year, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Cardiologists say holidays can alter people’s routines, and changes in sleep, exercise, and diet can put people at risk for heart-related problems. 

With the rise in holiday travel, people may forget to take their medications, push their health appointments to the New Year, or ignore symptoms that may be associated with heart attacks like chest pain, shortness of breath, or nausea, says Dr. Stephanie Coulter, a cardiologist and assistant medical director at The Texas Heart Institute. 

“Amid the holiday rush, it may be easy for many people to miss warning signs and symptoms for a heart attack,” she says. 

As respiratory viruses surge—during what experts have coined the tripedemic with the rise in RSV, COVID-19, and flu—infected people may experience trouble breathing and changes in their oxygen levels which can put them at risk for heart attacks, Coulter says. 

Doing what you can to mitigate the risk of heart attacks can help you and those around you. 

What are the signs of a heart attack? 

  • Chest pain/pressure in the chest
  • Nausea
  • Discomfort in an arm or shoulder
  • Back, neck, and jaw pain
  • Feeling weak or faint 
  • Trouble breathing 

Women’s and men’s symptoms may differ. The most common symptom for both is chest pain, but women may experience more subtle symptoms like nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath and back or jaw pain, according to the AHA

“Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center or left side of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes or that goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

While the symptoms vary depending on the person, it’s important to know the signs and act accordingly—especially because one in five heart attacks happen without the person knowing it. The CDC explains in these cases that “the damage is done, but the person is not aware of it.”  

“Do not ignore warning signs during the holidays because you are worried about ER crowds or inconveniences,” Coulter says. “It is always better to be safe than sorry regarding your heart health.” 

Call 9-1-1 immediately if you or someone you’re around begins feeling the signs and symptoms of a heart attack. Some people may experience heart attacks immediately while others experience symptoms for a longer period of time. 

“Keep an eye on your friends and family, and if they seem to be having signs or symptoms that are worrisome, help them to know what to do,” Dr. Eric Cruzen, executive director of the Emergency Medicine service line at Northwell Health, tells Fortune. 

Being out in the cold can stress the heart 

“When people maybe go outside to shovel their snow, or do their yard work in the cold, they’re exposing their heart and their bodies to a level of effort that they’re not typically used to,” says Dr. Matthew Saybolt, medical director of the structural heart disease progress at Hackensack Meridian Jersey Shore University Medical Center. 

Cold weather causes blood vessels to constrict, which can increase heart rate and blood pressure and stress your heart. 

“Not everybody is used to swinging hundreds of pounds of snow with a shovel,” Cruzen says. “Just because the driveway needs shoveling doesn’t necessarily mean that you may be the best candidate to go out there and do it, so just remember to keep your activities reasonable, and where possible, don’t exert yourself beyond what you normally would.”

For those living in colder temperatures, doing the same outdoor activities you did in the warm months can also stress the heart. The cold affects the body differently. You expend more energy, so consider taking it slow. 

Cardiologists recommend individuals at high risk for heart disease limit strenuous activities in the bitter weather when they can. 

Monitor your diet 

Diet changes also affect the heart, and the holidays can be prime for consuming foods with high salt content, which elevates blood pressure. Meals rich in fatty content can cause inflammation and put stress on the body. Increased alcohol use during the holidays can cause hypertension or elevated blood pressure. 

Cardiologists say this doesn’t mean cutting out all holiday indulgences, but instead, they say don’t be afraid to ask hosts for accommodations and keep some semblance of your normal diet intact. 

Know if you or a loved one is at high risk for heart disease 

About half of Americans have one of three risk factors for heart disease—including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking. If you’re high-risk for heart disease, it’s important to be “extra mindful” of how the winter months change your routine, Cruzen says. Other risk factors include being overweight or obese, diabetes, physical inactivity, and extreme alcohol use. 

For people who have a high-risk relative or friend, check in on them—offer to help them with difficult tasks in the cold, make meal accommodations, don’t smoke around them, and “don’t nominate them to shovel the driveway,” Cruzen says. 

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