Flu, Heart Attacks and You: What\'s the Link?

 Dr. Kevin Campbell
  31st-Dec-1969

This year's flu season is one of the worst in decades. Thousands of Americans have been diagnosed with flu, and many have suffered severe complications, including death. In fact, since Oct. 1, 2017, more than 80,000 cases have been confirmed in the U.S. alone by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – and the season has not yet peaked. While the flu shot is vital for the prevention of outbreaks, this year's vaccination does not appear to be a great match, and this has contributed to the widespread outbreaks. The predominant strain is H3N2, and it's particularly virulent – it produces severe symptoms. The telltale symptoms of the flu include high fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat and body aches.

The flu typically peaks in January but flu season can last until March or April. February is also American Heart Month, where we raise awareness for cardiovascular disease in the United States. Heart attacks affect both men and women equally , and nearly 500,000 Americans die suddenly each year from heart disease. That translates to 1 in 4 deaths in the U.S. annually.

Flu and Heart Attack Risk

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in January suggests that a flu diagnosis is associated with an increased risk for heart attack during the days to weeks following a bout with the flu. In the study, researchers evaluated 365 patients who were admitted to the hospital with heart attacks and found that those that had a respiratory infection – particularly the flu – were at significantly higher risk. In the first seven days after a flu diagnosis, those included in the study had a sixfold increase in heart attack risk. Physicians speculate that the increased stress that the flu places on the body contributes to this very strong association. Flu and other respiratory illnesses can cause inflammation, and inflammation is known to be associated with heart attacks by increasing the likelihood of forming blood clots in the coronary (heart) arteries; when these blood clots form, a heart attack occurs.

What Are the Symptoms of a Heart Attack?

The most common symptoms of a heart attack include chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea and pain radiating down the arm or into the neck. In women, symptoms can be different – many women experience vague symptoms such as fatigue, feelings of dread, pain in the back or jaw and even flu-like symptoms. This can make the diagnosis and treatment of heart disease in women much more challenging. In addition, during flu season, the symptoms may be even more confusing. While most of us think of heart disease as a disease of men, more women than men die every single year from cardiovascular illnesses.

What Can We Do to Stay Safe This Flu Season?

First of all, it's important to get the flu shot, and it's not too late. Wash your hands frequently and avoid touching common surfaces in public spaces. Make sure you understand your risk for heart disease. Talk with your doctor and understand ways in which you can modify your risk; focus on diet and exercise in order to improve your cardiovascular health.

If you contract the flu, seek medical attention early. Physicians can often treat you with medications that can lessen the severity and duration of symptoms – getting treated early will limit the stress that the flu can put on your cardiovascular system. Your doctor can also suggest other treatments for symptomatic relief, such as Tylenol and ibuprofen for fever and body aches, and decongestants and throat lozenges for a sore throat and nasal congestion. If you have the flu, stay home from work and school to avoid spreading it to others.

When to Seek Additional Medical Attention After a Flu Diagnosis

While most cases of flu will benefit from over-the-counter therapies at home, some can be more severe. Complications including meningitis, pneumonia and other severe infections.

  • If you find that you have a persistent high fever that's unrelieved by medication or have worsening symptoms – or if you have chest pain or shortness of breath – seek immediate medical attention.
  • If you cannot drink enough water to remain hydrated, you'll likely need IV fluids.
  • If the symptoms persist for more than seven days, you likely have a super-infection with a bacterial pathogen that will require antibiotics.
  • If your child is under 3 months of age and has a fever of 104 degrees, see a doctor.
  • If you develop a stiff neck or a persistent headache associated with confusion and trouble staying awake, seek treatment.
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