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November 29 , 2001


Holiday Heart Syndrome: Don't Risk Your Heart Health This Holiday Season

Although the holidays can be heartwarming, they can also cause heart problems. Drinking too much alcohol during this season of parties and high spirited revelry can result in Holiday Heart Syndrome - an often frightening disruption of the heart's normal rhythm.

The disorder can occur in both people who regularly drink a lot of alcohol as well as those who rarely if ever take a drink -- except when they are tempted to over imbibe with extra glasses of wine or "spiked" eggnog during the holiday season. The disorder is especially associated with drinking excessively over a short period of time. "It often strikes young people. In fact, we even see teenagers with the problem. Drinking a six pack of beer quickly, as teens sometimes do, can make a person prone to Holiday Heart Syndrome," says Emory Heart Center cardiologist S. Tanveer Rab, M.D.

Symptoms of Holiday Heart Syndrome include palpitations - the sensation the heart is racing or skipping beats - as well as chest discomfort and feeling faint and short of breath. "Typically, these patients present with an irregular heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation," says Dr. Rab, Assistant Professor of Cardiology at the Emory School of Medicine. "Fortunately, the condition is usually short lived and self terminating if caused by Holiday Heart Syndrome, especially in people who go to the emergency room and get started on medication to get their heart rhythm back to normal."

How does holiday binge drinking disrupt heart rhythm? "Excessive alcohol consumption takes a toll on the heart in several ways. It depletes your vitamin reserves, including thiamine, which is particularly important for healthy heart function," Dr.Rab explains. "Also, any time you have a large alcohol load it causes excess diuresis (the secretion of large amounts of urine). The result is lowered levels of the electrolytes potassium and magnesium and that can contribute to the irregularlity of the heart rhythm."

"We check for thyroid function and heart enlargement, too, to make sure they are not contributing factors," says Dr. Rab. "Usually, the heart is structurally normal and Holiday Heart Syndrome responds quickly to treatment with multivitamins, correction of electrolyte abnormalities and the administration of drugs to restore heart rhythm. Rarely, electrical cardioversion is required."

Although Holiday Heart Syndrome is not life threatening, it is still a frightening experience requiring medical tests and treatment. "It's important to remember that binge drinking, short term, places you at risk for cardiac events. If it is long term, it can lead to irreversible heart damage, " Dr.Rab says. "The best way to avoid Holiday Heart Syndrome and to keep your heart healthy is to drink alcohol in moderation, or not all."

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