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If you drink, watch out for your heart

By Judy Fortin
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Drinking too much at the office holiday party can do more than provide stories for the water cooler Monday morning.

Cardiologists are warning party goers about "holiday heart syndrome." It's a condition first identified in the 1970s, but is often diagnosed this time of year in hospital emergency rooms.

CNN medical correspondent Judy Fortin learned more about it from Dr. Laurence Sperling, a cardiologist at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia. (Watch to learn the symptoms of holiday heart syndrome. Video )

Fortin: What is holiday heart syndrome?

Sperling: This is a syndrome where people, who are otherwise healthy for the most part [and] don't have any underlying health troubles celebrate a holiday, ... often are drinking a modest to significant amount of alcohol. What happens in this syndrome is alcohol stimulates the heart to go into an abnormal heart rhythm. The most common is atrial fibrillation.

Fortin: Could the symptoms be confused with other conditions?

Sperling: Certainly when we see new atrial fibrillation, we have to think of a long list of medical problems that can be causing that. But when we see someone who is young, otherwise healthy, coming from their office party or major celebration and they say, "Well, you know I had one too many, Doc," holiday heart syndrome would be a differential diagnosis.

Fortin: Who is most at risk?

Sperling: Men more than women. It's pretty hard to predict who will have an abnormal heart rhythm, but we know alcohol itself can stimulate the heart itself through nerve pathways to cause all kinds of flip-flops and irregular beats.

Fortin: What does it feel like?

Sperling: Often this feeling of the holiday heart syndrome or atrial fibrillation or extra heart beats feels like your heart is beating out of your chest. It's racing. There can be associated ... symptoms like feeling short of breath, sometimes a pressure-like feeling in the throat or neck. It's not really dangerous. It could be dangerous in people who have significant undetected heart problems, and you start racing that heart and it's essentially a stress test.

Fortin: When should you seek treatment?

Sperling: What I tell people is, If your heart starts racing, running for more than minutes, certainly up to hours and it doesn't go away, and if you recognize that you might have been drinking more alcohol than usual and you're short of breath or having any of the associated symptoms I described, I do think it's worth having it checked out by going to your regular doctor or being seen in the emergency room.

Fortin: How can you prevent it?

Sperling: Moderation, using judgment, and certainly recognizing if you've had a couple of drinks of alcohol, that we say from a heart standpoint, you really don't have a lot to gain by drinking more than that on a daily basis.

With holiday heart syndrome, your heart can feel as if it's beating out of your chest. You may also feel throat or neck pressure.


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