When it comes to flu and your heart, the bad news is, flu can make your heart sick. Just not in that angsty, teenage, love-struck way. It’s more life-threatening than that (although your teen may not agree) and involves mounting research showing a link between influenza and both heart attack and stroke.
A January 2018 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine confirmed the heart/flu link. The study found that heart attacks are six times more likely in the seven days following a flu diagnosis. They also noted that heart attack risk increased slightly for those over 65 and that sixty-nine percent of study participants had not received a flu shot.
The good news is, researchers from UT-Houston found that the flu shot probably reduces the risk of heart attack, stroke or sudden death by as much as 25 percent. They estimate that 90,000 coronary deaths a year could be prevented in the U.S. if more heart patients received flu shots. Four additional studies suggest that the flu vaccination does in fact protect against atherosclerosis — a condition which hardens and clogs arteries from a buildup of fatty deposits, or plaque. These plaque deposits can become dislodged during episodes of inflammation, such as having the flu, and can cause blood clots and heart attacks.
We asked Keith Vasenius, DO, an interventional cardiologist at Medical City Fort Worth, to discuss flu and your heart, including whether cardiac patients are more susceptible to the flu, if regular heart medications should be continued during the flu, and some of the health and lifestyle factors that can increase someone’s risk for heart disease.
Dr. Vasenius noted that flu can be hard on anybody — it’s a tough disease and it can set you up for secondary infections and other diseases, such as pneumonia. Most people in good health will suffer five to seven days with the flu and get better — they generally don’t need to go to the ER. But, it’s the very young, the very old and people with other medical problems, such as heart disease, who might need to consider going to the ER if they are having complications with the flu.
Flu and your heart: Are cardiac patients more at risk?
Cardiac patients are at no higher risk of getting the flu than everyone else but, because they have heart problems, they are more likely to get sicker with the flu. Flu is a respiratory illness and because of that, patients can develop problems with appropriate oxygen levels, which can affect every organ in the body, including the heart. It can especially take a toll on the heart if you already have heart problems.
“As a chest pain center, Medical City Fort Worth is seeing a number of cardiac patients being treated with flu complications,” said Dr. Vasenius. “For example, a patient might have low ejection fraction (EF), meaning their heart doesn’t pump very well. Untreated flu complications can lead to tachycardia, where the heart beats faster than normal while at rest. This makes the heart work harder and, in turn, can put it at risk for demand ischemia, a type of heart attack that can happen when a patient’s heart needs more oxygen than is available in the body’s supply. It may occur in patients with infection, anemia or abnormally fast heart rates.”
Flu and your heart: Should heart patients with flu continue regular medications?
With the flu and other illnesses, it’s important for heart patients to continue taking the medications their doctor has prescribed to treat their heart condition. That includes blood pressure and cholesterol medications.
“Sometimes when people are feeling ill — maybe they’re having nausea and vomiting — they don’t take their heart medications as prescribed,” Dr. Vasenius said. “This can lead to bad outcomes so, if this is happening to you, be sure and tell your doctor. If you let us know early enough, we can make adjustments for that.”
Pay attention to the warning signs of a potential heart attack.
Flu complications can develop very quickly, so it’s important to pay attention to signs and symptoms. Dr. Vasenius said he always watches for these classic warning signs of a potential heart problem, with or without the flu:
- Shortness of breath and chest pain — discomfort, extreme squeezing or pressure
- Dizziness or feeling like you might faint
If you have these symptoms in activities or situations where you’ve never had problems before, you should be seen by a medical professional immediately. That’s especially important if you have any risk factors for heart disease, including:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Family history of heart disease
If you have two or more of these risk factors, you should see a doctor to be screened for heart disease — with or without the flu.
Finally, protect yourself by getting your flu shot every year. The flu can be a life-threatening infection, especially in people at risk.
Flu shots are available at CareNow Urgent Care locations across DFW.
If you have the flu and any of the symptoms or risk factors listed above, one of our many Medical City ER locations across North Texas can help you avoid getting heart sick. With average wait times posted online, if you do have an emergency, you can spend less time waiting and more time on the moments that matter most.