Flu season is here again, and health care professionals are making sure the flu vaccine is on their patients’ to-do lists.
Not only can the vaccines help avoid unnecessary flu-related hospitalization and even death — incidents that hit a record high during the 2017-18 flu season — the shots could have a cardiovascular benefit.
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“We have reason to believe that becoming infected with the flu increases the risk of having a heart attack,” says Michigan Medicine interventional cardiologist Nadia Sutton, M.D., MPH.
Sutton points to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine that found the likelihood of hospitalization for a heart attack increases approximately sixfold during the first week after a patient’s flu diagnosis.
The possible reason: “The flu virus can cause an inflammatory reaction throughout the body,” says Sutton, which may increase the risk of heart attack.
She and Michigan Medicine infectious diseases specialist Kevin Gregg, M.D., spoke more about the connection — and offered general tips for staying healthy this flu season.
Flu and heart attack: what to know
How long is flu season?
Sutton: The flu season typically begins in October and peaks sometime between December and mid-February. However, the season can run into spring and can even go as late as May.
Does the vaccine last all season?
Gregg: The effects of the influenza vaccine do last for the entire flu season and there is no “perfect time” to get the vaccine, but the earlier the better — as that will provide the best chance for protection from the very onset of flu season.
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While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone age 6 months and older get the flu vaccine by the end of October, this doesn’t mean if you missed this time frame you should skip the vaccine.
Who is at the greatest risk of complications from the flu?
Sutton: Anyone who contracts influenza is susceptible to developing complications of the infection.
In particular, we worry about frail older patients, infants who have not fully developed their immune system and immunocompromised patients. This includes both patients who take immunosuppressing medications (due to cancer, autoimmune disease or having received an organ transplant), as well as patients who are compromised with other medical problems, such as heart failure or COPD.
Receiving the flu vaccine not only protects you, but also protects those you might have come into contact with if you had been infected with the flu.
For example, if you are otherwise healthy, you might be infected with the flu and not realize it initially, go to the grocery store or a clinic appointment, and pass along the infection to someone who might not tolerate the infection as well as you do.
How can a flu virus affect my heart?
Sutton: The inflammation that occurs from the viral infection may increase the risk of heart attack. This may occur due to inflammation causing rupture of a previously existing cholesterol plaque lining the blood vessels of the heart, or it might occur due to the extra demand for blood flow that infection places on the heart.
Viral infections can also lead to myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, and respiratory failure. While less common, this can occur even in young or otherwise healthy individuals.