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3 Weird Ways Winter Can Hurt Your Health (Besides The Common Cold)

Dr. David A. Greuner
Written by Dr. David A. Greuner

Between jam-packed schedules, gift-giving pressures, and family hosting duties, the holidays can be a stressful time — as we are all aware of.

But what you might not know is that the season's stress can have an impact on your physical health as well.

Case in point: Researchers have found that deadly heart attacks and syndromes increase during the winter holiday season every year, with particular spikes around Christmas and New Year’s Day.

But it's not just seasonal stress that could be to blame — cold weather in general is known to be hard on the heart.

So, before you pick up the shovel for a strenuous snow-shoveling session or grab that extra cocktail at your next holiday party, make sure you're aware of these three heart-related health problems that tend to pop up at this time of year:

1. Holiday Heart Syndrome

This term refers to the irregular cardiac arrhythmias that are known to occur around holiday time — often in young, healthy people after they've been drinking heavily for several days. (In this case, "heavily" means three or more drinks a day for women and four or more for men.)

How does it happen? Acute alcohol ingestion can cause short circuits in the heart’s electrical rhythm, increases in levels of free fatty acids in the blood, and surges in adrenaline and other stress hormones.

In some people, even modest amounts of alcohol (as little as one drink) can cause holiday heart syndrome. And it's often exacerbated by stress, overeating, ingesting too much sodium, dehydration, and lack of sleep — all common around the holidays.

What You Need To Know

If you feel little flutters or extra heartbeats in your chest for a few seconds, especially after drinking, then you might be experiencing holiday heart syndrome. It will typically go away on its own as the alcohol leaves your body.

The one type of palpitation you should worry about is atrial fibrillation. With atrial fibrillation, the symptoms are more severe: You might notice shortness of breath, fatigue, and dizziness along with palpitations and sometimes chest pain that lasts for minutes. Atrial fibrillation isn't harmless and could lead to stroke or heart attack. If you experience these conditions, call a doctor and if the symptoms seem extreme, take a trip to the emergency room.

To help avoid holiday heart syndrome, I recommend that women limit themselves to one drink a day or less (men should stick to two or fewer). You should also drink plenty of water, practice deep breathing or yoga during this busy time of year, and try to reduce holiday stress.

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2. Raynaud's Syndrome

Have your fingers or toes ever turned white or blue when it's cold outside? How about when you're anxious or stressed? Or have you ever experienced that “pins and needles” feeling in your hands and feet?

All of these are symptoms of Raynaud's syndrome, which is a disorder of your blood vessels that causes them to clamp down from different stimuli — such as cold weather or stress — limiting circulation.

It's most common in women, and often develops between ages 15 and 25 (although it can impact people of all ages.)

What You Need To Know

In most cases, this is more of an annoyance than a serious condition — but if you find you experience these symptoms frequently or pain develops, you should seek medical advice (often, ultrasound imaging is the noninvasive way to obtain a quick diagnosis).

To manage the condition, you should try to avoid the stimuli that bring on your symptoms. To start — just in case you needed another reason to ditch the cigarettes — stopping smoking is an absolute must with Raynaud's syndrome. Of course, avoiding being out in cold weather also helps. But if it's unavoidable, medications might be prescribed to help relax your blood vessels and keep your fingers and toes pink and warm.

3. Mitral Valve Prolapse

This is a very common heart problem where the flaps of the mitral valve don't close properly. It's twice as likely to occur in women, and is seen in people of all ages.

Most people aren't aware they have it, and it's generally harmless. However, a small percentage of patients progress to the point of needing surgery to prevent heart failure.

Mitral valve prolapse is also associated with a problem that tends to affect women more: panic attacks. Take note of this when planning a holiday get-together and your stress levels begin to increase!

What You Need To Know

If you're a victim of panic attack episodes, feel your heart fluttering in your chest, have difficulty breathing at times, or have dizzy or fainting spells, you should see your doctor to be checked. Typically, high-resolution ultrasounds are used to look at your valves and blood flow to ensure that all is well with your pump.

While these holiday heart issues may seem scary, they are unlikely to be life-threatening. And by managing stress and staying mindful of these conditions, you can help stay healthy this season.

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