It's the most wonderful time of the year for some — but a McMaster University cardiologist is warning people about 'holiday heart attacks' for those stressed out by the Christmas season.

Dubbed by heart researchers as the 'merry Christmas coronary', heart attacks can be triggered by stressful events or other risk factors, says cardiologist Dr. Greg Curnew, an associate clinical professor of medicine at McMaster University.

"The risk of heart attack tends to go up during times of stress, and for some people the holidays can be a very stressful time," Curnew said.

A heart attack is caused by a rupture of plaque in the wall of a coronary artery. "It's like a volcano erupting," Curnew said.

When the stress of the holidays is combined with other factors like high blood pressure, smoking and bad food, the risk for a heart attack rises even more, Curnew says.

"One high-fat meal can cause the arteries to constrict for three to four hours," he said. "And 70 per cent of people I see are struggling with their weight as it is."

Most heart deaths occur out of hospital, with one in four of those dying within one hour of their first-ever symptoms. Curnew outlines heart attack signs as:

  • Chest pain that lasts for at least 10 minutes — coming on suddenly or slowly — and feeling like heaviness or a steel band tightening around the chest.
  • Chest discomfort that spreads to the neck, throat, jaw and shoulder, the back, arms and even the hands.
  • For those who don't experience chest pain, be aware of discomfort in upper parts of the body.
  • A choking feeling in the throat, or arms that feel heavy or useless
  • Breathlessness, nausea or vomiting, a cold sweat; light-headedness.  

"If you think you are having a heart attack, this is not the time to call telemedicine or your family doctor. Get straight to the hospital," Curnew said.

He added that nine of out 10 Canadians have at least one risk factor for heart disease.

"For me, this is a time of year to celebrate and to feel lucky to be here for the holidays," Curnew said. "And with a wish to be here next year, too."