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By Boris M | 07 November, 2019 Published in Resources
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Experiencing chest pains after drinking alcohol can easily have one worrying.

Is this a reasonably harmless symptom of having a little too much to drink, or does it suggest that it is dangerous for one to continue drinking alcohol?

There are many different causes of alcohol-related chest pain, and not all of them are so severe that one must give up drinking altogether.

One should never ignore such symptoms, but in some cases, they can have relatively minor rather than serious causes.

As well as chest pain, drinking may cause one to experience an irregular heartbeat, abnormal breathing, and other issues that are not similar to typical hangover symptoms.

How much does alcohol affect the heart?

Large quantities of alcohol are harmful to the heart, and heart disease often kills long term heavy drinkers.

When the stomach digests alcohol and the liver breaks it down further, it turns into many potentially dangerous substances that can cause harm to the body as they pass through it.

If one exposes their body to these hazardous substances for too long, the heart can be severely damaged.

With long term heavy drinking, the heart muscle may expand, which will weaken it and may eventually cause it to fail [1].

The hormonal effects of alcohol may also do damage to the heart, and repeatedly raising one’s adrenaline isn’t good for the heart either.

On another level, alcohol is not one-sidedly bad for the heart.

Most but not all of the evidence is in favour of moderate drinking being good for arterial and heart health [2].

Those who drink a reasonable amount of alcohol have lower rates of heart disease than those who drink none at all.

However, evidence in favour of alcohol’s positive effects on heart health applies only to moderate drinking.

Heavy drinking is undoubtedly harmful to heart health according to all of the evidence.

How does alcohol lead to chest pain?

Alcohol can lead to chest pain in many different ways, some, although not all of which relate to serious health problems.

Alcohol may cause weakened blood flow to the heart.

Sometimes alcohol can cause an irregular heartbeat even in a healthy person. In other cases, it is a sign of a health problem.

1. Alcohol allergy

A few people are allergic to alcohol itself, which is often very serious and requires the person to avoid even small quantities of alcohol altogether.

More commonly, people are allergic to certain ingredients in alcoholic drinks.

Sulfites and histamines can cause allergic reactions in many persons [3].

As well as allergies to sulfites and histamines, one may be allergic to the grains, gluten, or wheat used to produce alcohol.

Alcohol can also be challenging to digest for many people.

Many of these alcohol-related allergies can cause an irregular heartbeat and chest pain, as well as other symptoms.

Depending on the nature and seriousness of one’s alcohol intolerance, one may have to avoid drinking altogether.

In other cases, one may be able to continue to avoid alcohol as long as they avoid certain drinks.

One might drink spirits rather than beer if one is allergic to grains, or one might drink red wine rather than white wine if one is allergic to sulfates.

One should talk to their doctor about the safety of continuing to drink even though one is allergic to some ingredients found in alcoholic drinks.

2. Acid reflux

Excessive drinking can lead to a person developing acid reflux disease.

If a person develops acid reflux disease as a result of other causes, alcohol may still trigger an acid reflux attack.

Avoiding eating a large amount of food with alcoholic drinks can sometimes allow one to continue to drink in spite of mild acid reflux problems [4].

Acid reflux attacks can be painful and distressing, sometimes so much so that one believes they are suffering a heart attack.

If alcohol, in combination with food, causes chest pain, one should talk to their doctor about the possibility of having acid reflux disease.

Antacids can sometimes allow one with acid reflux disease to drink, depending on the seriousness of the illness.

3. Alcohol and stress

While alcohol can calm the nerves and make one more socially energetic, it can also raise stress levels.

One might want a few drinks after a hard days’ work, but regular drinking can make one more and not less vulnerable to stress and anxiety.

Sometimes, nervousness can occur during a night of drinking rather than the morning after.

Alcohol causes the body to produce adrenaline, which is not great for one’s stress levels.

A person with a healthy heart may experience an irregular heartbeat or even chest pain as a result of an alcohol-induced anxiety attack.

One should learn to reduce stress and possess social energy without using alcohol or other substances.

4. Alcohol and dehydration

Alcohol dehydrates the body and unbalances one’s electrolytes.

A combination of depleted electrolytes and dehydration can cause heart palpitations in many people.

Muscle strain can also become more noticeable when one’s fluids and electrolytes are too low.

5. Hodgkin’s disease

Sometimes, a person who has undiagnosed cancer of the lymph nodes (Hodgkin’s disease) can experience chest pain when drinking alcohol.

While Hodgkin’s disease does not affect the heart, the irritation of the lymph nodes can cause one to feel pain in the chest.

One should always talk to their doctor about their health problems, including chest pain.

Most likely, one’s chest pain is nothing serious, but it can be a sign of a disease that may kill unless a doctor diagnoses it in its early stages.

Other substances that one consumes with alcohol

While drinking alcohol, one might frequently smoke cigarettes or use other drugs.

Alcohol-related chest pain may be caused by other substances that one uses while drinking and not by the alcohol itself.

Since alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine all raise blood pressure, a combination of two or all three can be enough to cause chest pains.

Interactions with medications

One should talk to their doctor about whether or not any medications (including over the counter medications) they use are unsafe to take with alcohol.

One’s drinking may be unproblematic in terms of the amount consumed but causing problems due to adverse interactions with one’s medications.

How to deal with occasional alcohol-related chest pain

Anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen can cause alcohol-related chest pain to go away.

Drinking water can cure the dehydration that may be contributing to one’s chest pain.

One should never ignore chest pain. Only if one is aware that a severe health issue does not cause their alcohol-related chest pain is it ok for one to continue to drink.

They consider relying on anti-inflammatory medications to cure occasional chest pain.

Call an ambulance if chest pain is severe

If chest pain is severe, one may be experiencing a heart attack. If great pain is combined with a feeling of heavy pressing on the chest, get to the hospital.

Heart attacks are more common during the holidays

For forty years, doctors have known that heart attacks occur significantly more frequently around the time of Christmas and the new year celebrations.

Hospitalizations for heart problems in late December and the first days of January were higher than average forty years ago [5].

Today, the end of the year is still associated with heart attacks. These hospitalizations are quite likely due to the amount of alcohol consumed during the last ten days of each year.

As well as an increased incidence of heart attacks, relatively harmless incidents of chest pain are more common.

Sometimes, a fluctuating heart rate experienced during the holidays is nothing to worry about.

If one knows that they have a healthy heart, healthy arteries, and nothing wrong with their lymph nodes, a bit of alcohol-related heart fluctuation may be harmless.

It is likely to go away after one stops drinking and sobers up on new year’s day. Alcohol can affect the nervous system in unpredictable ways.

If alcohol causes one’s nervous system to behave erratically, one may briefly experience arrhythmia. A person with a healthy heart can sometimes experience these symptoms when drinking alcohol.

A person who does not have anything close to an alcohol problem can still experience adverse effects when drinking.

Cardiomyopathy

Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is a potentially fatal heart disease caused by long term heavy drinking.

Like many other potentially deadly diseases, it often causes only minor symptoms until it suddenly becomes life-threatening.

Alcoholism causes the heart muscle to increase in size but thin and weaken.

A weak heart will lead to all sorts of health problems as it cannot pump enough blood to the rest of the body.

As the heart weakens further, it can lead to heart failure and death.

Although alcoholic cardiomyopathy is most common in early middle-aged men [6], it can affect men and women of all ages.

The disease is most common in heavy drinkers.

While anything more than three or four drinks per day or seven or fourteen drinks per week can be unhealthy, those who end up with cardiomyopathy are usually much heavier drinkers.

The disease is dangerous because many people are not aware that they have it until it has progressed dangerously far.

Detecting cardiomyopathy early

If a doctor manages to diagnose a patient with alcohol-related damage to the heart at an early stage of the disease, the patient will often quit drinking and avoid further damage to the body.

Anyone who drinks more than a little, even if they do not consider themselves an alcoholic, should get tested for cardiomyopathy.

Symptoms of the disease are sometimes minor until a heart attack occurs, but there will often be early signs.

Due to a weakening heart and reduced blood flow, a person may experience fainting or at least dizziness.

Reduced blood flow to the brain will cause periodic dizziness. Brain fog can also result from poor blood flow.

One may frequently cough up light colored mucus, or have swelling around the ankles and elsewhere.

More than anything else, the disease will cause a rapid and irregular heartbeat.

Anyone who drinks more than a little and has an irregular heart rate should be concerned and ask a doctor to check for signs of the disease.

How does alcohol damage the heart?

Alcohol is a somewhat toxic substance. It may be possible to enjoy in moderation for a long time, and may even have health benefits for some people, but it is toxic nonetheless.

One can, of course, die from an alcohol drug overdose. Repeatedly exposing the heart to more than a small amount of a poisonous substance will gradually change and weaken it.

A weak heart cannot quickly pump blood out of itself.

This causes the heart to swell up with blood, which causes the heart to grow over the years. An enlarged heart is an unhealthy heart that is on its way to failure.

How can a doctor detect this disease?

Thankfully, it is easy to determine whether or not a person has any alcohol-related damage to the heart. A physical exam and x-rays are enough to either confirm or rule out the disease.

Your doctor may ask you medical questions about alcohol use; one must answer these questions honestly and never understate one’s drinking. After checking your pulse and blood pressure, a doctor will listen to your heart.

Abnormal heart sounds can prove that the heart is either enlarged or has a dysfunctional valve.

A doctor may also check for swelling of the hands and feet. Enlargement of the veins, especially in the neck, is another sign of the disease.

After the physical exam, more technologically advanced tests will determine the degree of damage to the heart muscle.

These tests will include a few different blood tests. A basic metabolic panel will measure the amount of salt, chloride, potassium, and other substances in the blood [7].

Abnormal levels of these substances can indicate damage to organs and arteries.

A second blood test will detect damage to the liver, as alcoholism often causes liver damage as well. Abnormally low levels of enzymes released by the liver indicate liver damage.

A third test is a cholesterol test, as anyone with a damaged heart may have clogged arteries as well. High cholesterol is thankfully reversible and may disappear without any changes other than avoiding alcohol.

After the physical exam and blood tests are complete, the doctor will move on to X-Rays, which determine the amount of damage done to the heart in more detail.

X-Rays can also diagnose the presence of abnormal fluid in the lungs [8], which is common if one has a damaged heart.

The doctor will then know in detail how much damage alcohol has done to the heart and other vulnerable parts of the body.

How is alcohol-related damage to the heart treated?

If anyone has damaged their heart by excessive drinking, they must quit rather than cut down on alcohol.

If one is addicted, as a heavy drinker often is, this may be a difficult task, but it must be done.

As well as avoiding alcohol from then on, one might have to avoid salt for the most part.

If the heart is already damaged, a low salt diet will lower one’s blood pressure and reduce strain on the heart.

Much of the damage to the heart may be permanent, but one can still partly recover heart function and prevent further damage.

If a doctor diagnoses the disease at an early stage and treatment begins quickly, one’s odds are better. A doctor may recommend blood pressure-lowering drugs or diuretics to reduce strain on the heart.

If the damage is more serious, one may have to undergo surgery to install a pacemaker [9].

How can one quit alcohol if they are addicted to it?

Relying purely on will power might but probably will not work. One has to have an actual plan, simply choosing to quit drinking will not work for long.

Alcoholism is a real addiction, and even those who are already suffering from severe alcohol-related health problems may find it challenging to quit.

Significant life changes may be needed to break an alcohol addiction.

If one’s social life depends heavily on drinking, one may have to find new friends or at least new activities.

Social situations in which drinking occurs will have to be avoided. Will power on its own is not going to be enough.

One cannot be around drinking as a recovering alcoholic. One may have to quit many habits they associate with drinking. One can benefit greatly from the support of others.

If one is seriously addicted to alcohol, one can experience painful and even dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

The first 72 hours of withdrawal are the most difficult and can result in seizures for the most addicted [10].

For this reason, one might want to check themselves into alcohol rehab for a short time to attempt to break their addiction in a different environment.

Only two weeks after quitting, one is likely to see some health improvements. One’s heart function may mostly recover if they quit alcohol, and one’s overall health is sure to improve as well.

References

[1] https://www.bmj.com/content/341/bmj.c6077

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4314445/

[3] https://www.healthline.com/health/allergies/alcohol#allergy-vs-intolerance

[4] https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/01.CIR.0000151608.29217.62

[5] https://www.healthline.com/health/alcoholism/cardiomyopathy#causes

[6] https://www.healthline.com/health-news/what-to-know-about-holiday-heart-syndrome#What-to-know-about-holiday-heart-syndrome

[7] https://www.healthline.com/health/basic-metabolic-panel

[8] https://www.healthline.com/health/alcoholism/cardiomyopathy#diagnosis

[9] https://www.healthline.com/health/alcoholism/cardiomyopathy#treatments

[10] https://www.quitalcohol.com/how-to-quit-alcohol.html

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