A case of the flu can cause some real heartache. Literally.
There is growing evidence that links the flu to both heart attack and stroke. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine cited that heart attacks are six times more likely in the seven days following a flu diagnosis. The good news however, getting a flu vaccine not only helps prevent the flu, but can reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, heart failure or other major heart events.
The flu does your heart no good
We’re all familiar with the aches, lethargy and general ickiness of the flu. A highly contagious respiratory viral infection, the flu quickly and easily spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes, catapulting those pesky germs through the air as far as three-to-six feet away! Influenza can cause high fever, chills, sore throat and in some people, nausea and vomiting. Most of us in good health moan and groan, but weather the flu and get better after about a week or so. For the very young, older folks and people with other medical problems – especially those with heart disease – the flu poses a bigger threat.
The flu can be especially dangerous for people with heart disease, potentially making them much sicker. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about half of adults hospitalized with flu during the 2017-2018 flu season had heart disease.
“The flu puts added stress on the body, making it harder to breathe, affecting blood pressure, heart rate, and your overall heart function,” says Jayasheel Eshcol, MD an interventional cardiologist with Centerpoint Medical Center part of the HCA Midwest Health Heart and Vascular Institute. “This can lead to heart attack or stroke in those who have heart problems.”
Adding to the risk are the inflammation characteristics of the flu that can irritate the lining of the arteries, which if already damaged or irritated by plaque buildup, could result in a blood clot, causing a heart attack or stroke. In less common cases, the flu can also affect healthy hearts.
“The most serious danger from the flu is really for those with existing heart problems,” stresses Dr. Eshcol. “A young person who is healthy is unlikely to have a heart attack during the flu.”
Some advice from the heart: Get your flu vaccine!
The best protection against the flu is the annual flu vaccine. Even better, research shows that the flu shot may reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke or sudden death by as much as 25 percent. Additional studies suggest that the flu vaccine may protect against atherosclerosis — a condition which hardens and clogs arteries from a buildup of plaque. The flu shot, rather than the nasal (live virus) vaccine is recommended for anyone with heart disease.
The CDC says the best time to get your vaccine is as it becomes available in the fall. Flu season can begin as early as October and lasts through May — but the earlier in the season you get vaccinated, the better. Bottom line, with or without heart disease, the pros of a flu vaccine far outweigh the cons.
Flu shots are available at CareNow Urgent Care locations throughout the Kanas City metro area.
Is it the flu or a bad cold?
Although flu and common cold symptoms can be similar, flu symptoms generally come on quickly, sometimes within a matter of hours:
- Fever (usually high)
- Extremely achy joints and muscles and painful, achy eyes
- Fatigue, weakness and lethargy
- Warm, flushed skin and red, watery eyes
- Dry cough
- Vomiting and diarrhea (mostly in children)
Even with symptoms, it’s not easy to tell if you have the flu. That’s why it’s important to call your doctor as soon as you have symptoms. He or she can do a lab test for a definitive diagnosis.
Do I have to go to the doctor?
Even if you’re in good health call your doctor at the start of flu symptoms. After all, who really wants a full-blown case of the flu if it can be helped? Your doctor can start you on antiviral drug treatment that can ease your symptoms and shorten your bout with the flu. Antivirals work best if started early, usually within 48 hours.
Get help right away if…
If you have any type of heart condition, it’s especially important to call your doctor right away with flu symptoms. Complications can happen extremely fast, so the doctor will want to start you on antiviral drugs as soon as possible. If your symptoms get worse, you may need urgent medical care. Whether or not you have a diagnosed heart condition, if you experience any of the following, call 9-1-1 or get to your nearest ER.
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Sudden dizziness
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough
Heart medicines and the flu
It’s important for heart patients to continue taking their medicines, including blood pressure and cholesterol medications, during a flu episode, says Dr. Eshcol. In fact, the CDC recommends maintaining a two-week supply of your heart medicines during flu season. Talk with your doctor before trying any over the counter drugs to make sure they are safe for your condition and won’t interfere with any heart or blood pressure medicines.
Experts in Matters of the Heart
Whether you need emergency care for chest pain or management of a heart condition, the cardiologists at the HCA Midwest Health Heart & Vascular Institute can help. We have Kansas City’s largest network of award-winning, accredited chest pain centers, which improves your chance of surviving a heart attack by more than 35 percent.