6 Ways To Prevent a Holiday Heart Attack

Lower your risk of an ER trip this season.

man in green sweater clutching chest

Medically reviewed in December 2022

Updated on December 20, 2022

The holidays should be a time of festivities with family and friends. But for some people, it also means increased risk of a heart attack. In fact, studies have repeatedly found that more heart attack deaths occur around the holidays than in other months of the year.

Here’s what you need to know about potential heart attack triggers during the winter season—and what you can do to keep your heart going strong.

Be kind to your body

According to Taral Patel, MD, a cardiovascularist in Hermitage, Tennessee, people at increased risk for heart attack include those with diagnosed heart disease, who have already had a heart attack, been treated with stents, or who have had bypass surgeries, as well as smokers and people with diabetes. But even if this doesn’t describe you, your heart may not be as healthy as you think. 

“A heart attack is not a singular event,” says Frank Arena, MD, an interventional cardiovascularist in Covington, Louisiana. “It’s the end result of the culmination of a series of events. You have a heart attack because you’ve spent years and years building up plaque around the arteries.”

Maintain good health: Healthy eating habits and regular exercise throughout the year can help keep problems at bay. If you have diabetes, be sure that it’s under control. Smokers could give themselves the best gift of all by kicking the habit.

Take time to relax

Ideally, the holiday season should be celebratory. But it can also bring about added stress from strained family relationships and overstretched finances.

“One thing that surprises me is how much stress and emotion play into it,” says Dr. Patel. “Mental and emotional stress is a huge factor that I think we downplay.” Some people may even experience broken heart syndrome, which occurs when a sudden, stressful event—like the death of someone close or a motor vehicle accident—leads to symptoms much like that of a heart attack, including chest pain and shortness of breath. While long-term damage doesn’t usually occur, if you have broken heart syndrome, imaging and other tests are necessary to make sure you haven’t had a heart attack.

Stress overload can also make it tough to get enough sleep, which can fuel overeating. “Insomnia makes adrenaline levels go up, blood pressure goes up, we get carb cravings,” says Dr. Arena. “You just continue to make poor choices in the moment because you aren’t sleeping.”

Stress less: Take time to relax; try meditation to calm down. Make sleep a priority. You’ll be more clear-headed for handling family issues and making spending decisions. Getting enough shut-eye can also help curb imbalances in hormones such as cortisol, ghrelin, and leptin, which affect appetite.

Maintain your medications

If you regularly take prescription drugs to treat a chronic condition like heart disease, continue to do so during the holidays. “We’re very busy during the holidays,” says Hoang Nguyen, DO, an interventional cardiologist at Regional Medical Center of San Jose. “People forget to take their medication, they forget to check in with their doctor. Things like that tend to lead to heart attacks.”

Be prepared: Don’t rely on your memory for taking your pills; separate them into pill containers labeled by day. Set reminders in your phone. If you’re traveling, take the entire bottle of each medication with you in your carry-on bag. If your return trip is delayed, you won’t run out. You’ll also have a list of your medications and dosage if needed.

Take it easy on the alcohol

Parties often mean the toasting flutes and champagne will be in full force. While celebrating in moderation is okay, going overboard is not wise

“If you’re drinking a fair amount, say, more than two or three drinks or anything enough to give you a hangover, you’re creating a lot of adrenaline,” says Arena. This can lead to holiday heart syndrome, or atrial arrhythmia caused by alcohol consumption, which is characterized by an irregular heartbeat. “It’s contributed to by the buildup of adrenaline that comes when people overindulge and become dehydrated, which makes their hearts start pounding,” says Arena.

Tame the tipples: Avoid drinking on an empty stomach. Don’t have more than one drink per hour, and alternate drinks with water to stay hydrated. Skip sugary drinks; it’s more difficult to tell how much alcohol you’re imbibing. Stay festive by switching to seltzer water and lime or mixers—sans the alcohol. 

If you have heart disease risk factors, you’ll want to take extra precautions to avoid holiday heart syndrome: Limit yourself to no more than two drinks per day for men and one for women, avoid overeating (it may trigger a reflex response that can cause an arrhythmia), and limit caffeine.

Use caution during cold-weather activities

If you’re tempted to join the family for a sleigh ride or feel compelled to shovel snow, you may want to think twice, especially if you’re not physically active throughout the year. “Winter activities can increase stress hormone levels and blood pressure,” warns Patel, adding stress on the blood vessel wall. Plaque along this wall can then rupture, creating a blood clot that travels through the bloodstream and causes a heart attack. 

Cooler temperatures can also play a role. “Even if you’re not shoveling snow and it’s not super cold, your arteries constrict a bit to keep your core warm,” Patel says. “That also increases blood pressure and shear stress [on the blood vessels].”

Know your limits: If you’re not used to lots of strenuous activity limit your time outside, dress warmly and don’t overexert yourself.

Don’t ignore the symptoms

Maybe you just sat down for dinner or began exchanging gifts and you’re not feeling quite right. Let someone know about your symptoms, quickly. Don’t worry about ruining the moment—it will only become worse if you’re having a heart attack. Dr. Nguyen says heart attack symptoms like chest pain, discomfort, or shortness of breath require immediate medical attention. In these cases, call 911. “You should never ignore symptoms when it comes to the heart,” he adds.

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