If you’ve ever had influenza – commonly known as the flu – you know it can hit fast and leave you feeling miserable, achy and barely able to get out of bed. For most of us, the flu is only a nuisance. It might make us miss a few days of work and put plans on hold.
But if you have heart disease or have suffered a stroke, getting the flu can be much more serious. That’s because you are more likely to develop flu-related complications, including sinus and ear infections, pneumonia, or a heart attack. In rare cases, you could develop inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) or the protective sac around the heart (pericarditis).
In fact, many people with heart disease and other chronic health conditions die from the flu each year. Infections like the flu or pneumonia can place added strain on the heart and other organs.
Getting a flu vaccine every year is the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from the flu. It can help keep you from getting sick, suffering from complications, or even dying from the flu. Use this resource to learn more about flu shots and your heart health.
Each year, the flu strikes millions of us. The infection spreads easily through tiny droplets in the air when someone coughs or sneezes. More than 200,000 people on average go to the hospital for flu-related complications each year.
Getting a flu shot is your best protection. According to the CDC, during the 2017 flu season, vaccination prevented:
- 7 million flu illnesses
- Over 100,000 flu-related hospitalizations
- 8,000 flu deaths
Just like eating heart-healthy foods, exercising regularly and following up with routine health visits can help protect your heart health, so can rolling up your sleeve and getting a flu vaccine each year.
If you have heart disease, you’re more likely to become seriously ill from the flu or other respiratory infections – those that affect your nose, throat or lungs.
Complications from the flu include:
- Severe illness, including pneumonia and inflammation – or swelling – of the heart muscle (myocarditis) or the protective sac around the heart (pericarditis)
- Worsening heart disease or other health problems
- Greater chance of having a heart attack
Having the flu can place added stress on the body and the heart. It can quicken your heart rate, raise your body temperature and ramp up your body’s fight or flight response, all of which can make heart attack more likely. As well, your body has more inflammation when fighting infection; this may cause plaque that lines the blood vessel to rupture.
It’s important to remember that complications from the flu can occur even when conditions such as heart disease or diabetes are well controlled. That’s why experts urge that everyone 6 months of age and older get a flu vaccine each year.
If you need more convincing, the flu vaccine carries more heart benefits, too. Annual flu vaccines are:
- Linked to lower rates of cardiovascular events, especially among those who’ve had a recent heart attack
- Shown to cut the risk of death in people with heart failure and lower the likelihood of going to the hospital for cardiovascular problems
- Associated with about 20% reduction in death (from cardiovascular disease or any cause) in patients with heart failure when compared with no vaccination
Another plus? When you get vaccinated, you don’t just protect yourself. You are also be doing your part to help protect other people around you from the flu.
Flu viruses change from year to year. Labs make a new flu vaccine (shot) to match the three-to-four strains, or types, of flu viruses that researchers predict will be the most common for the upcoming season. That’s why you need to get a flu shot every year.
A health care professional will give you the vaccine. It is most often given as a shot, or injection, into the muscle in your upper arm. After you get it, your body will develop antibodies to help you fight off the strains of the virus that the vaccine targets. It takes about two weeks for you to become protected.
If you are older than 65, you can get a flu shot that guards against four strains of flu or one that guards against three strains of flu. Ask your doctor about which one is best for you and your condition.
There also is a nasal flu vaccine that is sprayed into your nose. Unlike the flu shot, the nasal flu vaccine contains live, but weakened virus, and may not be a good option for people with heart disease or other conditions.
If you think you have the flu, it’s important to:
- Take care of yourself
- Stay home from work to avoid spreading the virus
- Not make any decisions to adjust your regular medications without talking with your health care professional
- Contact your health care professional right away to discuss treatment options
Antiviral medications are available with a prescription. These medicines can make the illness milder, shorten the length of time you’re sick and may help guard against flu-related complications. But these medicines work best when they are started within 48 hours of noticing symptoms.
Your health professional is in the best position to decide whether an antiviral is right for you and any other members of your household.
Remember that people with the flu are most contagious, or able to spread the infection to others, in the first three-to-four days after their illness starts, according to the CDC.
Early Flu Symptoms
Unlike the common cold, the flu comes on suddenly. People who have the flu usually experience some or all these symptoms:
- Fever, though not always
- Muscle or body aches
- Extreme tiredness
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
Some people may have vomiting or diarrhea, but these are more likely in children than adults.
- What’s the difference between the types of flu vaccines I can receive?
- Which flu vaccine is best for me?
- Does your office offer flu vaccines? Do I need to make an appointment?
- Why is the nasal spray vaccine only recommended for those 2 to 49 years old?
- How can the flu make my heart condition worse?
- How long does the vaccine take to start working?
- How will I know if I have the flu, even a mild version?
- What are antiviral medicines and when are they used?
- How will I be able to tell if I have a cold or the flu?
- What other, if any, vaccines do I need?