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Each year, up to 20 percent of Americans get the flu, resulting in over 130,000 hospitalizations—in fact, about 200,000 in 2012. While the typical symptoms of the flu can take a toll on one’s health in their own right, there’s an even more serious concern to consider: an increased heart attack risk associated with the flu.
A 2018 study published in The British Medical Journal suggests that a patient’s heart attack risk might be six times higher within the first week of a lab-confirmed diagnosis of influenza. Now more than ever, it’s important to take all available precautions to protect yourself and loved ones, especially aging adults, from potentially devastating complications from the flu.
LISTEN: Dr. Taylor discusses the flu and heart attack risk in the Medical Intel podcast.
How does getting the flu increase heart attack risk?
The flu virus triggers a chain of inflammatory reactions that can activate chronic conditions and inflammation throughout the body. Although anyone can get the flu, middle-aged and older adults who have at least one chronic health condition, such as hypertension or diabetes, are at an increased risk of getting it. However, the risk of heart attack associated with the flu affects most adults equally.
The flu virus is spread through the air or through human contact, typically through the fall and spring in the Northeast. A flu infection generally lasts up to 14 days and can cause whole-body symptoms, including:
- Body aches
- Muscle aches
Complications such as dehydration, ear infections, and sinus infections, typically cause hospitalizations related to the flu. Symptoms not typically associated with the flu, such as chest discomfort or shortness of breath, require immediate medical attention—these symptoms could indicate a forthcoming heart attack.
For example, we once saw a healthy, middle-aged woman who had just returned home from vacation. We diagnosed her with the flu, and because she had chest pain, we also checked her heart. It’s a good thing she came in when she did. Her heart was inflamed and failing rapidly. Over the course of just 12 hours, her heart could no longer function on its own—it happened that fast. As a result, she went on an artificial blood circulation machine for several days while her heart recovered. She was touch and go for a while, but she made a full recovery under close observation from a team of respiratory and heart specialists.
How to reduce the risk of flu-related heart complications
Vaccination is the most effective way to avoid the flu. However, fewer than half of Americans get the flu vaccine—putting themselves and others at increased risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all healthy adults receive the flu shot. It’s especially important for people with chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, to be vaccinated to keep their symptoms from getting worse.
Evidence suggests that people who get the flu shot lower their heart attack risk by about 36 percent. For nearly everyone, there’s no reason not to get a flu shot, even people who feel healthy or have never had the flu. Flu shots are widely accessible at pharmacies and local doctors’ offices and typically are covered by insurance companies.
Vaccination is key to avoiding the flu, which can increase heart attack risk by as much as six times, says @TaylorMHVIcard. https://bit.ly/2QUBwXT via @MedStarWHC
Reduce the spread of the virus
Aside from receiving a vaccination, people can reduce the spread of the flu virus by:
- Avoiding close contact with those who are sick
- Covering their mouths and noses when sneezing
- Not touching their eyes, noses, or mouths when possible
- Only touching objects that are routinely cleaned
- Washing their hands regularly
Additionally, it’s important to stay as healthy as possible. Individuals who are stressed or fatigued and those who eat a poor diet are more prone to getting sick. A healthy diet, proper rest, and regular exercise can improve the immune system and protect people from catching the flu.
Getting the flu can be quite the battle with typical symptoms usually lasting anywhere from one to two weeks. The implications the flu can have on your heart health, meanwhile, can be even worse. Make sure to avoid the spread of germs and receive a flu shot to protect your heart health.