Can Your Heart Handle Christmas?

Winter holidays can wreck havoc on your heart. Here are 7 common questions about heart attacks to prepare you in case you or a loved one needs help fast.

Winter holidays can be a dangerous time for people who have heart disease. In fact, according to a article citing a study by Circulation, Christmas has the highest rate of cardiac death, followed by December 26 and New Year’s Eve. Why? [pull_quote]During the holidays, legions of Americans eat too much and drink more alcohol — while ditching their exercise routine,[/pull_quote] said Robert A. Kloner, MD, PhD, a researcher at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. Plus, the good doctors may be off and hospitals could be understaffed. Read these 7 common questions about heart attacks and be prepared in case you or a loved one needs help fast. Read the full article at

I have chest pain. How do I know if it’s heartburn or a heart attack? Should I wait and see?

Don’t hesitate to call 911. A heart attack can start slowly with a clot blocking blood flow to the heart, but as the minutes tick by, the heart muscle is suffering permanent damage. The telltale signs of a heart attack include feelings of fullness, pressure, or squeezing in the chest, and the sensation may come and go. Pain may spread to the shoulders, neck, jaw, arms, or back, and you could feel light-headed and suffer nausea and heavy perspiration. The sudden onset of unexplained anxiety, weakness, or fatigue is also a sign. Women are more likely than men to experience vague symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and jaw or back pain. Youth — relatively speaking — is no reason to disregard these symptoms, especially if you’re female. Heart attacks are up 32 percent in the last decade among women under the age of 50, which is troubling in light of a 2007 study that found more than half of women under the age of 55 who suffer a heart attack ignore their symptoms for more than an hour.

Should I give someone aspirin if I think they might be having a heart attack?

Yes, but only after calling 911. The usual dose is one full-strength aspirin (325 to 500 milligrams) or four baby aspirin; the 911 operator will guide you. The victim should chew the pill so that it will enter the bloodstream more quickly. Given after a heart attack, aspirin can reduce the risk of dying by 20 to 30 percent. The protection comes from aspirin’s anticlotting effect: It helps restore and maintain blood flow until surgeons can reopen arteries.

When I cough or breathe deeply, the side of my chest burns. Is that a heart attack?

Figuring out the difference between heart attack symptoms and other chest pain issues is tricky, and most emergency physicians would rather you be safe than sorry. Always seek medical help first and question your symptoms later. That said, what you’re describing sounds more like a broken rib. If you’ve fallen recently or bumped into something, probe your chest for tender spots. If you can identify a particularly sensitive area, you probably have a dislocated or broken rib. You should still see a doctor, but you don’t need an ambulance.

I have bad indigestion and a pain along my arm. Should I take Tylenol or Tums?

You should call 911 and then chew an aspirin. You could be having a heart attack.

My chest hurts but it’s not bad enough to be a heart attack — or is it?

Any chest pain is cause for concern. If it’s a crushing pain that extends to your jaw or arm, call 911 immediately. You may be having a heart attack. Even moderate pain could be a sign of a heart attack, particularly in women or in people with diabetes, who often don’t have significant pain during a heart attack. Other symptoms of a heart attack include shortness of breath, fatigue, weakness, nausea and vomiting, extreme sweating, and dizziness. Pain that comes on with exertion, like shoveling snow, but improves when you rest may be angina. Angina results from narrowed coronary arteries and reduced blood flow. While it’s not a heart attack, it is a warning sign of heart disease. See your doctor as soon as possible.

Can you have a heart attack and not even know it?

Yes. Silent heart attacks don’t cause pain, at least not the intense, chest-crushing type most of us expect. And they may not even show up right away on an electrocardiogram, a test of electrical activity in the heart that can detect muscle damage caused by conventional heart attacks. But an estimated 200,000 people in the United States alone may have one each year. People with diabetes are at higher risk because high blood sugar levels can damage nerves that would normally transmit pain signals during an attack. Having heart disease, of course, also increases a person’s risk. In fact, when Duke University cardiologists used magnetic resonance imaging to check the hearts of 185 people with heart disease, they found that 1 in 3 had signs of a history of silent heart attacks. Over the next 2 years, the people who’d had a silent heart attack in the past were 17 times more likely to die from heart disease as those who hadn’t had what doctors call unrecognized myocardial infarctions.

Some people experience atypical symptoms during a heart attack, including unusual tiredness, indigestion, and a burning, tingling, or full feeling in the chest, and they might not recognize these as heart attack symptoms. If you think you might be having a heart attack, call 911 right away.

My Dad had a heart attack in his forties. Will I have one, too?

Early heart disease in your family — in men before age 55 and women before 65 — increases your risk two to nine times higher than average. But family history isn’t limited to your parents. A brother or sister’s heart disease may raise your risk even higher: four times higher than a parent’s.

If heart disease is a family legacy, make a commitment to a heart-healthy lifestyle: Maintain a healthy weight; aim for a half-hour of exercise at least five days a week; eat a diet rich in produce, whole grains, lean protein and with moderate amounts of “good” fats like nuts and fish; and limit the amount of saturated fat from sources such as whole milk, full-fat cheese, ice cream, and hamburger meat. Keep blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride numbers in check. Be sure to tell your doctor about your family history; the information could be a tiebreaker in deciding if you need cholesterol medication and if you need advanced heart tests such as a coronary calcium scan to look for signs of plaque in the arteries of your heart.

Good to Know: How Long the Brain Can Survive without Oxygen

If a victim stops breathing, whether it’s due to drowning, a heart attack, or choking, you have about 6 minutes after breathing stops before brain damage begins.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Popular Videos