The one-time, big-time holiday heart syndrome
This is once again the time of year when the number of people being rushed to the emergency room for heart attacks, irregular heartbeats and even sudden cardiac arrest goes up. This is due to the so-called “Holiday Heart Syndrome” or HHS.
This used to be considered a mere coincidence during the holiday season, but the problem has been reported in scientific journals and is now a real medical condition that everyone, especially those with known heart problems, has to be wary about.
The last thing we want is for a member of the family to spend the rest of the season in a hospital, or worse, for the family to grieve over the sudden death of a loved one. Yes, it can be a one-time, big-time heart complication with no second chances.
Merrymaking is a hallmark of the Christmas holiday, but when the wine, beer and other booze exceed healthy limits for drinking—aggravated by a high-fat diet, lack of sleep, stress over the traffic and last-minute shopping, plus of course, the cold chill this time of year—the toll on one’s cardiovascular health can be too much.
There appears to be a “conspiracy” of all adverse risk factors during the holiday season. These factors trigger an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation or AF, which can lead to heart failure, heart attack, stroke and other serious complications.
Many underestimate the impact of mounting stress during the holiday season as we go from one Christmas party to another. Add to that the stress of making sure one has gifts for everyone, and the elevated adrenaline in our system fuels the engine of a cardiovascular catastrophe.
It’s good if one survives a heart attack or a stroke. Many are not that fortunate and succumb before reaching the hospital, or before they even swallow the chunk of crispy pata they sliced from the buffet table.
So, for people with risk factors like smoking, overweight, hypertension, cholesterol problems and diabetes, have a checkup with your family physician, and take the necessary preventive medicines and lifestyle measures to avoid being a victim of HHS.
Family physicians generally try to identify patients who are at high risk to develop HHS, so that they can be forewarned to take the necessary precautions. Someone who’s forewarned is better prepared to prevent whatever catastrophe HHS may cause.
Medicines may be adjusted, or some medicines may be added, but the best preventive measure is avoidance of all the risk factors mentioned.
Just say ‘no’
Here are some suggestions to avoid HHS:
1) Shopping for gifts could be done before the holiday rush.
2) Appointments for get-togethers and other Christmas parties have to be scheduled in advance, and one just has to learn to say “no” to some invitations.
3) Trips have to be planned to avoid the stress-inducing traffic.
4) For important occasions, it’s best to have an early start than fidget in the car because one is already late for the occasion.
5) Alcohol should be taken in strict moderation, ideally not more than one drink for women per day, and not more than two drinks for men.
6) Caffeine in excess should also be avoided.
7) Having a good night’s rest should never be compromised, even if we’re the first to say goodbye to everyone.
I usually recommend my high-risk patients, especially those with previous heart attacks and those with significant blockages of their heart arteries, to wear watches which can monitor their heart rates. They are advised to determine their regular resting heart rate (preferably 55 to 70 beats per minute).
If it increases by 15 percent or more even while at rest, it’s fair warning that their heart is experiencing some stress and strain from whatever they’re doing. One should then desist from all alcohol and HHS triggers, and maybe it’s time to go home and rest.
For example, if one’s usual resting heart rate is 70 per minute, and it goes up to more than 80 per minute, the heart is already saying, “I’m working harder now to cope with the stress of everything you’re subjecting yourself to.”
If the increase in heart rate is accompanied by symptoms of chest tightness, shortness of breath, palpitations or sensation of pounding heartbeat, skipped beating of the heart or irregular heartbeat, it’s best to go to the nearest emergency room to prevent further strain or damage to the heart.
The holiday season is a season of cheer. Let’s keep it that way by making sure our loved ones who have heart problems are out of harm’s way.
Even if we don’t have heart problems, it’s still best to avoid all triggers for HHS. Remember, it can be a one-time, big-time catastrophe no one expects.
Here’s wishing everyone a joyous holiday season, and a healthy, successful and abundant New Year. God bless!
E-mail medicalfiles.inquirer @gmail.com, or post message on Facebook: Dr. Rafael Castillo
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