Too many toasts at festive gatherings can lead to this uncomfortable condition.

By Madeleine Burry
December 17, 2018

During this season’s parties and family gatherings, it’s possible you—or someone else in attendance—will experience holiday heart syndrome. Don’t be fooled by the festive name: This medical condition isn't a plot summary of a Hallmark Channel movie, it’s a condition brought on by drinking too much alcohol.

Holiday heart syndrome doesn’t have a formal definition, Regina S. Druz, MD, of the Integrative Cardiology Center of Long Island and Holistic Heart Centers of America, tells Health. “It’s an observation that people who drink a lot may wind up getting admitted to the hospital with palpitations or arrhythmia, often caused by atrial fibrillation,” she says. (Atrial fibrillation, also called AFib, is an irregular heartbeat that occurs when the upper chambers of the heart—the atria—pump blood too quickly, getting out of sync with the lower chambers and disrupting your heart's ability to distribute blood throughout your body.)

Here’s what you need to know about holiday heart syndrome if you plan on celebrating with a few glasses of wine this festive season.

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How holiday heart syndrome got its name

The festive name dates back to the 1970s, when a doctor coined it to describe the volume of otherwise healthy patients showing up around holidays with arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats) after binge drinking.

But despite the name, the condition isn’t restricted to festive occasions. “Holiday heart syndrome could be common any time an individual uses alcohol excessively,” says Dr. Druz.

What exactly is it about alcohol that leads to holiday heart? While the specific mechanism is unknown, study after study (and there have been many since the 1970s) have found a link between binge drinking and arrhythmia, notes a 2013 review.

Its symptoms are disconcerting

If you get holiday heart syndrome, here’s how it’ll feel: One moment, you’ll be chatting with relatives, refilling your glass, and nibbling on apps or dessert. The next, you may feel shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, or heart palpitations (a feeling that your heart is beating faster than usual), says Dr. Druz, adding that people can even feel lightheaded or pass out.

“The hallmark symptom if someone is in atrial fibrillation is an irregular heart rate,” says Dr. Druz.

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How concerned should you be about holiday heart syndrome?

Here’s the good news: “The consensus is that once you stop consuming alcohol, holiday heart goes away,” says Dr. Druz.

But that doesn’t mean the condition is benign, she adds. “The heart is a first responder, reacting to things that go on in your body.” That is, the effects of your alcoholic beverages are felt everywhere, but your heart is first to send up an alert that things have gone awry.

Most, but not all, occurrences of holiday heart syndrome are the result of atrial fibrillation; it’s important to know that AFib is associated with a heightened risk of a stroke due to blood clots, says Dr. Druz. A stroke is scary business, and holiday heart symptoms (chest pain, dizziness, heart palpitations) can feel worrisome. So if you suspect you have holiday heart syndrome, what should you do?

That’s a tricky question to answer, says Dr. Druz, since it depends on your specific situation and risk factors. If you have a history of heart problems, err on the side of seeking medical help, she says. And, if your chest pain lingers beyond 20 minutes, it’s also wise to seek help, including possibly visiting an ER.

“Listen to your body, and if something seems off, it probably is,” says Dr. Druz.

Even if you do have just a fleeting episode this holiday season, it’s a good idea to follow up with your doctor, she adds, to see about getting an evaluation for atrial fibrillation.

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How can you avoid holiday heart syndrome?

Here comes the unpleasant reality: It’s alcohol that leads to holiday heart syndrome, and avoiding booze completely is the only surefire way to avoid those uncomfortable symptoms. AFib tends to be more common in women and older adults—especially those with high blood pressure or who are obese—but holiday heart syndrome can happen to anyone, says Dr. Druz.

There’s no known number of drinks that will lead to holiday heart, since every individual's tolerance differs, she adds. Some behaviors, however, are known to increase the likelihood of arrhythmia when combined with alcohol, she notes—like not being properly hydrated or indulging in rich foods.

Her advice: Set sensible limits for what you’ll eat and drink before you arrive at holiday gatherings—and keep in mind that alcohol is a toxin. “Yes, it’s a social glue and fun to use,” says Dr. Druz, “but people should know that as with any toxin, too much of a good thing can lead to effects that are highly undesirable and serious.”

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