1222-Feature-Holiday heart_Blog

Feel free to enjoy a drink or two this holiday season — just be careful while decking those halls.

That’s the advice from cardiologists who see patients with an irregular heartbeat caused by drinking too much alcohol, a problem known as “holiday heart syndrome.”

“Holiday heart syndrome is the worst hangover you could have of your life, because the hangover you have is atrial fibrillation. It’s a dire consequence of getting drunk,” said Adam Budzikowski, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at State University of New York Downstate Medical Center.

Atrial fibrillation causes the heart’s two small upper chambers to quiver. Fast, irregular heartbeats can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other complications.

“Most studies investigating holiday heart trends have found a statistical increase in heart attacks and other problems — not a giant surge, but worth noting just the same,” said Richard Stein, M.D., director of the Urban Community Cardiology Program at New York University School of Medicine and an American Heart Association volunteer. “It’s more prevalent at Christmas, New Year’s and graduations.”

For many people holiday heart syndrome usually goes away on its own, Stein said, but it can cause dizziness, sweating and low or high blood pressure.

“If you have heart disease and experience these symptoms, you should absolutely go to the emergency room,” Stein said. And if it persists and get worse, he advises an ER visit even if you’ve never had a heart problem. Medication can slow the heart rate. A prior heart problem, coupled with medications, can increase the risk.

“If you have an underlying heart condition, you should drink very modestly at the normal level you drink and don’t experience any symptoms,” Stein said. “But if you don’t have heart problems and you’re not going on a bender, you should be fine.” As far as the alcohol, don’t just let it flow, experts say.

“There’s a big difference between sitting around at dinner with one scotch or a couple of glasses of wine than going around table to table getting intoxicated,” Stein said.

Budzikowski recalled one patient who’d “drink like a crazy man and present with atrial fibrillation the day after his birthday.” It took three years of visits before he got the picture to cut back on the celebratory drinking.

“Have a drink or two,” Budzikowski said. “It’s always better to do something in moderation than to go to the extreme. It sounds cliché, but that’s what’s going to keep you out of trouble.”