The cheer and warm wishes of season can lighten the heart and lift the spirit, but they can also bring some very unmerry health problems. In fact, the very things we love most about the holidays – decorating, visiting with family and friends, eating and drinking –may result in a few adverse effects on your health.
Imperial Health physicians have provided an overview of some of the more common health problems that occur during the holidays, along with advice to prevent these unwelcome gifts from ruining your enjoyment of the season.
We’re living through a new surge of COVID-19, so it seems like everyone is very familiar with the steps to take to prevent the spread of coronavirus. “Because of the pandemic, many typical holiday activities and travel plans are scaled back or not taking place at all, which will help minimize the risk of exposure to many of the typical seasonal viruses, such as cold and flu,” says Dr. Andrew Bradberry, family medicine specialist. “We are already seeing this with the flu, with lower rates than typical for this time of year, believed to be due to precautionary measures in place for COVID-19.” As a reminder, Dr. Bradberry says washing your hands is by far the best thing anyone can do to keep germs in check. “Use soap and running water if possible. If you aren’t near soap and water, anti-bacterial gels are a good second choice. And of course, wear a mask to protect yourself and others.”
People with allergies face unique health challenges during the winter holidays, both from food and from many of the things we do to decorate for the season.
The variety of foods available increases the risk for those with food allergies. “For those with known allergies, extra care is needed during the holidays when so many different people are preparing foods,” says Dr. Bridget Loehn, ENT & Allergy Specialist. If you aren’t sure of the ingredients in a dish, ask, or if you can’t find out, don’t eat it. Also, take time to check restaurant menus before eating out or ordering in, and always have an epinephrine injection kit available in case of a reaction.”
“Molds are not usually a problem in the winter, as their counts are lower, but the greenery many people bring into their homes, including Christmas trees, can harbor mold spores, which could trigger an allergic reaction” says Dr. Loehn. She advises using an artificial tree or greenery if you are prone to indoor allergies and dusting off stored decoration before putting out. Limit or remove scented candles, potpourri and similar items than can cause discomfort for those with allergies. Dr. Loehn adds that caution should be used when using spray-on “snow,” and popular pine-scented sprays or oils, which can cause allergic reactions in some people. “If you have an established pattern for allergy flare ups at this time of year, then be sure to take treatment precautions to prevent those symptoms, and if you are traveling, be sure to pack any medications you may need.”
When it comes to over-indulgence, most people worry about calories and health, holiday heartburn is another seasonal concern. Rich holiday food may leave you reaching for the antacids instead of the leftovers. According to Dr. Bradberry, for those who experience chronic acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), the holidays can be especially painful. He explains that acid reflux is a common and chronic digestive condition caused by a weakened lower esophageal sphincter (the valve between the stomach and esophagus) that allows stomach acid to back up into the esophagus. Heartburn, sour taste and indigestion are the most common symptoms. “The holiday season is one of the worst times of the year for patients with GERD,” says Dr. Bradberry. “The large amounts, and different types of food, we eat during the holidays can lead to extreme discomfort for chronic heartburn sufferers. It’s important to stay focused on your dietary recommendations and make sure you take any medications as directed.”
The holidays are full of surprises but a heart attack is something no one would every expect. However, multiple studies have found that the incidence of heart attacks occurring the two weeks before and the two weeks after Christmas increase significantly, with the highest increase – 37% — being found on Christmas Eve, according to 2018 study published in the British Journal of Medicine. Researchers from Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville studied national death rates from a nearly 30-year period and found that deaths related to heart disease spike in December and January, reaching their peak on Christmas and New Year’s Day. Similar results were found in a national study conducted at the University of California in San Diego. These researchers found that the number of cardiac deaths is higher on Christmas Day than on any other day of the year; with the second highest on December 26 and third highest on January 1.
Dr. Thomas Mulhearn, cardiologist with Cardiovascular Specialists of Southwest Louisiana, says there are many reasons for this phenomenon. “People with symptoms of heart trouble during the holidays tend to delay going to the doctor, partly from denial and partly from procrastination because it’s such a busy time. They are less likely to see their physicians when they first notice symptoms, mistakenly thinking they can just deal with it after the holidays are over.” He says other holiday-related risk factors include too much food, too little exercise, added stress, and alcohol. “Busy holiday schedules often provide the perfect excuse for skipping a workout or indulging in foods that are higher in fat, sodium and calories – all things that are not good for your heart.” He adds that missing medications can also cause a problem during the holidays. “People are out of their normal routine and may forget to take medications such as blood thinners and pills for high blood pressure, or if traveling, may forget to pack them.”
Don’t let a preventable health problem put a damper on your holidays. Take a few precautions and enjoy the season in good health!