Dec 22, 2021

Interviewer: Symptoms that you might think are related to the holidays but are actually more serious, we'll examine that next on The Scope.

The holidays can be a busy and fun time, and sometimes you might end up with some symptoms that you tend not to think much of because you think, "Well, it's just a result of this time of year." But they could actually be something that it's a little bit more serious than that and, during the holidays, people tend to ignore them.

Dr. Troy Madsen is an emergency room physician at University of Utah Hospital, and he has three symptoms that you might think are related to the holidays but are actually more serious.

Dr. Madsen: And sticking with our holiday theme, all of these symptoms start with the letter "H."

Interviewer: Well, that's festive.

Dr. Madsen: Isn't it?

Interviewer: Yes.

Dr. Madsen: So the first symptom is heartburn, and this is a typical symptom you're going to get after eating a lot over the holidays, whether Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, whatever it may be. You get some heartburn, you think, "Okay, I'm just having heartburn," but heartburn, as you know, can be something more serious. And that's kind of an obvious one, but it's one of those things where if you are experiencing heartburn and maybe it's a little different than heartburn you've had before, maybe you feel a little bit sweaty with it, you get a little bit of pain going down your left arm, you feel short of breath, that can be sign of a heart attack and is reason to get to an ER, get checked out, make sure everything's okay with your heart.

Interviewer: All right. So the first one that begins with the letter "H," it's a symptom that, around the holidays you might just dismiss it, but it could actually be a heart attack, is heartburn. So don't ignore it.

Dr. Madsen: Don't ignore it.

Interviewer: All right. What's the second one?

Dr. Madsen: Well, the holidays are a stressful time and there's certainly, you know, it's a time where you probably get headaches. You get family over, you're doing a lot of shopping, you're doing cooking, it's a lot of work.

Interviewer: Hitting the eggnog maybe a little more than you should.

Dr. Madsen: Maybe, exactly, you know. And as you get a headache, you may think to yourself, "Oh, it's just a headache. I get headaches." But if this headache is different from headaches you've had before, if it's a sudden onset severe headache, certainly if you get any kind of neurologic symptoms with it, like weakness on one side of your body, numbness, tingling, difficulty speaking, this can be a sign of something much more severe than just kind of a typical stress headache. It can be sign, sometimes, of bleeding in the brain, like a ruptured aneurism. Definitely a symptom you need to take seriously with these sudden, severe headaches, headaches that are different than headaches you've experienced in the past.

Interviewer: All right. We're talking about three symptoms that, during the holidays, you might kind of just dismiss because you're like, "Well, it's just that time of year," but could actually be serious. So far, we've had heartburn, we've had headaches, and you promised me a third "H." I have no idea what this one's going to be.

Dr. Madsen: Okay, our third "H" is hyperventilation.

Interviewer: Oh, yeah. Okay.

Dr. Madsen: So, again, kind of sticking with this stress theme over the holidays, you find yourself feeling anxious. You're feeling kind of nervous, you're breathing fast.

Interviewer: Did I get the right present for my wife this year?

Dr. Madsen: Exactly.

Interviewer: I'd like it to be better than last year.

Dr. Madsen: Am I going to do okay this year? Because I didn't do well last year. You're feeling anxious. You know, anxiety is a normal response to stress, but we get concerned when the anxiety is maybe much more severe. And there are some serious underlying medical conditions that can just make you feel anxious. You know, one of those is a heart attack, that can certainly cause some symptoms of anxiety.

Another one that'll classically do that is a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in the lungs. A lot of people just feel really anxious with it. Maybe they feel short of breath, maybe a little bit of chest pain. But sometimes, things that we might just think of, "Okay, I'm under a lot of stress, I'm just feeling really nervous," it could be a sign of those things, sometimes even a heart arrhythmia, where the heart goes into an abnormal rhythm, it beats really quickly. That can also cause a lot of anxiety, and something sometimes people will just write off to stress when it's a much more serious, underlying condition that's affecting them.

Interviewer: All right. So, if any of these symptoms happen to you, just pause for a second and take stock. I think it's also easy for people during this time of year, to just go, "Ah, I just don't have time for this. I'm not going to go get this checked out now, I'll go get it checked out later."

Dr. Madsen: That's exactly right, yeah, they do. And you know, it's natural that we are going to try and off, and just kind of write this off and say, "Oh, I get headaches. Oh, yeah, I get anxious when I'm under stress," or, "Yeah, I get heartburn when I eat a lot." But take a step back, think to yourself, "Is this the kind of thing I've had before or does this feel different?"


updated: December 22, 2021
originally published: December 2, 2016

For Patients