How the Flu Affects Your Heart
Bad news: Flu season isn’t over yet, according to recent reports from the CDC. Infection rates have increased in many areas of the country, and this is especially dangerous for people with heart disease.
“Flu can make a cholesterol-filled plaque vulnerable to rupture, form a blood clot and cause heart attacks and sudden death,” according to Saint John board-certified cardiologist Venkat Pasnoori, MD, MPH, FACC FSCAI.
Having any kind of viral infection, such as the flu, makes the heart work harder. In an effort to fight off the infection, the body releases chemicals that often cause inflammation, blood clotting, and elevated blood pressure. This added stress on the cardiovascular system could be overwhelming to an already weakened heart muscle, which may explain why the incidence of heart attacks consistently rises during flu season. New studies indicate that the risk of heart attack doubles in the week following a flu-like infection.
When combined with existing heart problems, the flu virus can also increase the risk of other serious complications, such as pneumonia and stroke. Among those hospitalized for flu complications last year, heart disease was named as a frequent factor and the most recurring chronic condition reported in cases of adult flu hospitalizations.
Not only do heart problems exacerbate the effects and hazards of the flu, but they can also make it harder for the body to fight the infection. There is a link between heart health and the efficacy of the immune system; a weaker heart means a weaker immune response and lesser ability to combat flu, resulting in longer and more severe illness.
What You Can Do
If you have heart disease or a chronic heart condition, it is important to be proactive about your health, especially during flu season. Don’t stress though (it’s not good for your heart)! There are some simple steps you can take to reduce your risk of serious flu complications.
- Talk to your Doctor Your physician will know what’s best for your individual needs and should be your first line of defense against illness. Be sure to consult with your doctor before taking any flu prevention or treatment measures. Make an appointment to see a doctor quickly here.
- Getting a Flu Shot Prevention is the best defense, and the vaccine could save your life! A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that patients with a history of heart problems who were vaccinated against the flu were 20 percent less likely to be hospitalized for a heart-related problem, and 50 percent less likely to die. Do it every year, and brave the needle – the vaccine spray is not approved for heart patients.
- Get a Pneumococcal Vaccine Protect yourself against pneumonia, a possible complication if you do get the flu.
- Listen to your Body Be extra attentive to your body and any signs of distress or abnormalities. If you notice any changes in breathing, call your doctor right away. Don’t have a doctor? See one quickly here.
- Fight Back If you still end up catching the flu, you should begin treatment with antiviral drugs as soon as possible. They can help your body fight off the infection, lessen the intensity of symptoms and shorten the duration of illness. Be sure to discuss any medications you are taking with your doctor or pharmacists to avoid potentially dangerous interactions, though.