Can the Flu Trigger a Heart Attack?

Tips for preventing serious complications during flu season
concerned wife takes husbands temperature

Did you know: people with heart disease are at least six times more likely to have a heart attack after coming down with the flu?  The flu causes inflammation that can affect different parts of the body, including the heart. In certain people, the inflammation can be so bad that it causes a heart attack.

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The good news is that flu complications rarely cause death. But, if you have other risk factors, it’s important to take the right steps to prevent serious problems. Here, clinical cardiologist Chete Eze-Nliam, MD, MPH, explains who are at risk for flu-related complications and how to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Q: What are the most serious complications of the flu season?

A: Although rare, possible complications include the following:

  • Pneumonia and bacterial pneumonia, which can lead to respiratory failure.
  • Cardiac complications, including heart attack and myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle).
  • Encephalopathy (severe central nervous system damage).

Q: Who are the most at risk for flu complications?

A: You are at high risk for developing flu complications if you have:

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  • Other severe health problems, including heart disease.
  • A compromised immune system due to age (either very young or elderly) or pregnancy.

If you fall into one of these categories, you are also thought to be at greater risk for severe illness from COVID-19. This makes it especially important to be proactive and cautious this flu season.  

Q: What are the biggest challenges involved in managing flu patients with heart problems?

A: Non-cardiac flu complications are known to make a heart disease patient’s heart condition much worse. It’s challenging to treat people with heart failure and flu complications, such as pneumonia and respiratory failure, since they may require ventilator support, intravenous fluids and medications. Severe flu symptoms can also put stress on the heart and increase the risk of worsening conditions such as heart failure and heart arrhythmia.

Q: What’s the best way to prevent the flu and serious complications?

A: Be proactive in preventing problems with the flu by doing the following:

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  1. Get your flu shot. This is especially important if you’re in a high-risk group.
  2. Avoid contact with sick people. No handshaking. Stay away from other people’s bodily fluids. Practicing good hand hygiene with frequent hand washing is important as well.
  3. Keep your heart in check. If you have heart disease, manage your condition carefully with medication, diet and exercise as recommended by your doctor. These preventive actions will help keep your overall immune system strong. If your heart condition is stable and you end up with the flu, chances are you’ll experience fewer, less severe complications.
  4. Don’t dismiss flu-like symptoms. Especially if you’re in a high-risk group, talk to your doctor right away. Timing is important. Tamiflu is a medication that may mildly shorten the duration of the flu if taken within a few days of the onset of flu symptoms. However, its effectiveness is still uncertain. You can discuss this therapy with your doctor if you develop the flu.
  5. Take time to rest. If you have flu-like symptoms, take time to rest and drink plenty of fluids. The longer you stay at home and rest, the faster you will recover.

Q: Are there any myths about the flu shot you can address?

A: Some people fear that if they get the flu shot, they’ll get the flu or another disease. It’s true that some people end up having flu-like symptoms after getting the flu vaccine. However, the overall benefits outweigh such rarely experienced, usually mild and self-limiting symptoms. 

Others avoid the flu shot because they don’t think it will work. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while vaccine effectiveness can vary, recent studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40 and 60% among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine.

It’s important to remember that the flu shot is a preventive action you can take to safeguard your health.

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