Picture the scene: it’s the morning after a hefty night before in Dublin’s pubs and clubs.
You wake up, and alongside the hazy memories and bloodshot eyes, you also feel an ache in your chest. Does this sound familiar?
Perhaps you’ve experienced chest pain after a binge-drinking session with your friends or during the festive season when drinking is aplenty.
Described above is what some medical professionals have called ‘holiday heart syndrome’, when you experience an erratic heartbeat, feelings of breathlessness, or chest pain after drinking alcohol.
The Irish Heart Foundation highlights how excessive alcohol consumption and ‘holiday heart syndrome’ are risk factors for future heart problems, alongside a signal from your body that alcohol is damaging your health.
Why is ‘holiday heart’ a concern?
With heart disease being Ireland’s biggest killer.
When it comes to how drinking impacts the heart, the Healthy Ireland Survey found that a fifth of the Irish drinking population binge-drink weekly.
The British Medical Journal also found that between Sunday night into Monday morning is the most common time of the week for heart-related deaths in the UK, linking this to weekend binge drinking.
With drinking to excess in a short space of time considered one of the most significant driving forces of alcohol-related harms, you can see how Ireland’s binge drinking problem could increase alcohol-related chest pains.
Is alcohol good for the heart?
While some people are under the impression that drinking small amounts of alcohol can help lower blood pressure, there is no clear evidence.
Research has shown that as soon as you drink more than one standard alcoholic drink a day, the harm quickly outweighs the benefits to your heart.
Furthermore, research from Ireland has shown these benefits only apply to specific groups of people, such as women over 55.
It is still overwhelming clear that overall, drinking alcohol only increases health concerns. These include issues with chest pain and the heart.
Alcohol and chest pain: what causes it
Alcohol-related chest pain can be caused by numerous factors can be narrowed down to three major categories: the heart, stress and anxiety, and additional substances.
How does alcohol affect the heart and cause chest pain?
Alcohol impacts our hearts in a few potentially profound ways.
Regardless of your health, alcohol consumption is likely to increase blood pressure. Secondly, it can cause an irregular heartbeat (atrial fibrillation) and lead to angina (reduced blood flow to the heart). All of which can lead to chest pain, with episodes of these often noticeable during hangovers and withdrawals.
As a worst-case scenario, chest pain can also stem from a heart attack or stroke.
Additionally, over a prolonged amount of time, heavy drinking can cause the heart muscles to expand, leading to weakening and less efficiency. Again, causing chest pain alongside heart disease.
This can also lead to a condition called Alcohol Cardiomyopathy, where the expanding and weakening of the heart puts extra pressure on blood vessels.
This may lead to potential heart failure, with the heart being unable to pump fluid around the body properly, leading to fluid build-up.
How are stress, anxiety and drinking linked to chest pain?
Stress and anxiety from drinking too much can also cause chest pain.
Excessive drinking has been found to increase anxiety levels. This is due to how the nervous system experiences a ‘rebound’ the morning after (an experience coined ‘hangxiety’).
Anxiety caused by alcohol can last for several hours after drinking. It can also lead to panic attacks and other symptoms of anxiety attacks – with chest pain being one of them.
The impact of mixing alcohol with drugs and other substances
Mixing alcohol with other medications or drugs can have adverse effects, including chest pain.
For example, alcohol combined with cocaine strains the heart and cardiovascular system. And alcohol mixed with antibiotics such as Metronidazole can increase blood pressure.
Another combination to consider is smoking and drinking. Smoking alone causing lung irritation and potential chest pain when combined with alcohol. Smoking can also increase blood pressure, alongside worsening acid reflux.
Alcohol and heart attacks: know the symptoms
With every alcoholic drink increasing your risk of irregular heartbeat (atrial fibrillation), dismissing chest pain can have severe health implications; alcohol can trigger a heart attack or a stroke, so it is crucial that you know the signs.
It is important to note that symptoms vary from person to person depending on factors such as gender and age.
However, if any of the following major symptoms last for more than 15 minutes, get medical help immediately.
The most common symptoms include:
- Chest pain – this is the most common symptom, described as a crushing, tight pain that may then move to the jaw or left side of the body
- Upper jaw, neck, back or arm pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Nausea, tiredness and weakness
- Loss of consciousness, feeling anxious or very afraid
Other factors causing chest pain
It is important to note that there can be a variety of problems indicated by pains in the chest, which doctors would consider before diagnosing chest pain as due to the heart, which may stem from a pre-existing health condition or be unrelated to alcohol consumption.
For example, it may stem from either the throat (‘gullet’) and stomach or straining a rib muscle.
Yet these conditions can also arise from heavy drinking, either through alcohol irritation or inflammation from the pancreas, causing rib and stomach pain.
This reminds us that drinking in excess impacts our physical health far beyond the classic hangover.
Heart pain and cardiovascular problems are two of the most common and potentially severe health implications that can be your body’s way of drawing attention to the impacts of excessive drinking.
What to do if you experience chest pain
Chest pain shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed.
Regardless of what is causing it, If you feel unwell after drinking, and it doesn’t improve over time with rest and over the counter medications such as paracetamol or antiacids, or if the chest pain worsens, then contact your GP or local medical professional for advice.
In a medical emergency, call 112 or 999.
How to help and prevent alcohol chest pain
This may all sound quite overwhelming, but there are a few key things that can help prevent general chest pain.
It has been shown that around 4 out of 5 cases of early-onset heart disease can be prevented through healthy lifestyle changes such as more exercise and cutting down on fatty food and alcohol.
However, if this article resonates with you due to you (or someone you know) experiencing chronic chest pain after drinking, perhaps it’s time to consider help.
Could you cut it down, or would you like to stop altogether? Do you want to stop drinking but don’t know how?
As explained above, there can be many different factors contributing to chest pain. So it is essential to talk to a medical professional about your health.
Yet if you feel that it could be linked to your drinking habits, and you can’t seem to limit or stop your drinking, you may develop alcohol dependence – also known as alcohol addiction.
Smarmore Castle, a private rehab clinic in Ireland, can help
Chest pain after drinking can be just one of the signs of potential alcohol addiction.
Alcohol addiction is treatable.
If you notice these signs in yourself or a loved one, there is help available. Good starting places include speaking to your family doctor, using resources such as Alcohol Action Ireland, finding a local AA meeting – or contacting a residential centre like Smarmore Castle Private Clinic.
Smarmore has an extensive residential rehabilitation programme set in a beautiful castle and country house in County Louth, Ireland.
Using the treatment experience offered by our sister residential centre, Castle Craig in Scotland, our treatment programme follows a 12-step programme.
This programme features a detox programme and a blend of specialistic therapies tailored towards addiction. So, if you feel that your chest pain could be linked to stress arising from drinking, our trained therapists can help you work through this anxiety.
We are also led by a team of Irish medical professionals, with 24-hour care from our qualified nurses on-site, alongside a medical assessment included within your personalised treatment plan.
If you are concerned about experiencing chest pain arising from alcohol consumption and getting medical help, you are in safe hands with our team at Smarmore Castle.
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Last updated & clinically assessed 30 March, 2022