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Get the Flu Vaccine. Your Heart Will Thank You

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Doctor making a heart shape with hands

It’s coming. Flu season is almost upon us, usually peaking from December through February. While it’s true that flu cases over the past couple of years were lower than usual – likely due to the additional precautions taken during the pandemic – this year is shaping up to be a more typical flu season, or perhaps an even worse one.

Getting an annual flu vaccine is an important way to protect you and your loved ones from the flu – a highly contagious viral infection that attacks the nose, throat and lungs. In high risk individuals, including the elderly, the very young and the immunocompromised, flu can develop into severe, life-threatening disease that requires hospitalization. Serious complications may include pneumonia, bronchitis and bacterial infection of the lungs.

Even if you do contract the virus, vaccinated individuals are less likely to experience severe symptoms that require hospitalization. This is why every member of the family should be vaccinated – to protect those at the highest risk if infected.

And now, current research supports another important reason to get vaccinated – to protect your heart health.

How Does the Flu Affect Heart Health?

When you get the flu, your body’s immune system responds aggressively by sending billions of white blood cells into the bloodstream to fight the infection. These cells and the chemicals they produce lead to widespread internal inflammation that puts extra stress on your heart and vascular system.

“The increased activity can cause a traffic jam of sorts, leading to blood clots, elevated blood pressure and even swelling or scarring within the heart,” says Sadeer Al-Kindi, MD, preventive cardiologist at University Hospitals Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute. “In addition, the added stressors make plaque within your arteries more vulnerable to rupture, causing a blockage that cuts off oxygen to the heart or brain and results in heart attacks or strokes, respectively,” he adds.

People with existing heart disease and those who have had heart attacks or strokes in the past are particularly vulnerable to flu-related heart complications. And other complications from the infection, which may include pneumonia and/or respiratory failure, can make heart failure and heart arrhythmias much worse. In short, if you have heart disease, the flu can substantially increase the risk of a serious or even fatal cardiac event. Getting vaccinated can greatly reduce that risk.

Flu Vaccination Offers Protection after a Heart Attack

Flu vaccination soon after a heart attack can lower the risk of death and may reduce the occurrence of future cardiovascular events in patients with heart disease.

“Vaccination for influenza is one of the most important medical interventions that we have for individuals who present with a heart attack,” says Dr. Al-Kindi. “Recent research found that people vaccinated against the flu within 72 hours of a heart attack have added health benefits that go beyond flu season, such as reducing risk of future heart attacks, death from heart disease and clotting of coronary stents.”

Additional Ways to Reduce Your Flu Risk

Even if they get the flu, patients with heart conditions are less likely to experience severe complications if their condition is well managed. In addition to getting vaccinated, there are several important steps you can take to manage your heart condition, including:

  • Get the flu vaccine early. The earlier you get it, the better it is at protecting you, as you never know when the virus may begin to spread.
  • Take all medications exactly as prescribed by your doctor.
  • Follow your recommended diet, exercise and stress-reduction plans.

And, everyone can protect themselves and others by covering their cough, washing their hands frequently and staying home when sick. If you do get the flu, talk to your doctor about antiviral medications that can help prevent severe illness.

Related Links

The heart specialists at University Hospitals Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute have the advanced training and expertise to help patients prevent or manage all types of heart disease.

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