How the flu can affect your heart health

This content is sponsored by MedStar Washington Hospital Center

LISTEN: Dr. Taylor discusses the flu and heart attack risk in the Medical Intel podcast.

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The flu is an extremely common ailment that many people suffer with every year – yet there is a more serious health issue that may arise as a result of the flu: an increased heart attack risk.

“People think the flu is a self-limited illness — they’ll feel bad for a few days. While that’s true each year, the flu causes over 130,000 hospitalizations, 6,200 deaths — and those deaths include death from heart attacks — six times more likely after the flu — it’s a real issue,” said Dr. Allen Taylor, chair of Cardiology at the MedStar Heart and Vascular Institute.

The flu triggers a host of inflammatory reactions that activate problems throughout the body, Dr. Taylor said. Some of those problems can manifest in the heart.

Anyone can get the flu, Dr. Taylor said, however, middle-aged and older adults who have at least one chronic health condition, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, can be at an increased risk. Also, stressed or fatigued people are more vulnerable.

According to Dr. Taylor, vaccination is the most effective way to avoid the flu.

“We really need to be doing a better job of getting the word out that you need to vaccinate, protect yourself and protect others by protecting yourself. By getting the flu shot, you can help somebody else,” he said, adding that the flu season in the United States typically goes from fall until spring.

The CDC recommends that all adults get the flu shot. People who get the flu shot lower their heart attack risk by about 36 percent, according to a 2013 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Flu symptoms can include joint and muscle aches as well as fever. The symptoms can last anywhere from one to two weeks.

While typical flu symptoms may not be alarming, patients should consult their doctors if they are combined with chest discomfort or unusual breathing problems, Dr. Taylor said.

“That’s when I would become particularly concerned that the flu increases risk of pneumonia, can inflame the lungs and then chest pains [are] either from inflammations around the heart or heart attack,” Dr. Taylor said. “Any worsening symptoms or new symptoms beside what you’d otherwise expect from the flu that you’d experience, I’d seek medical attention for.”

Aside from receiving a vaccination, people can reduce the spread of the flu virus several ways, Dr. Taylor said, including avoiding contact with those who are sick; covering mouths and noses when sneezing; only touching objects that are routinely cleaned, not touching eyes, noses or mouths when possible; and washing hands regularly.

“As always, proper diet, proper rest, good exercise — they can all be part of a healthy lifestyle that can protect someone from the problems with the flu,” he said. “But with that said, vaccination is the most important thing, and right now we are simply not vaccinating enough Americans.”

While the usual flu symptoms may only last two weeks, the implications of heart health can be long lasting, Dr. Taylor said, reinforcing the need to get a vaccine and medical attention when serious symptoms arise.

When patients are seeking medical care, MedStar’s facility is skilled at treating and supporting patients, Dr. Taylor said. Also, it uses aggressive treatments for its patients.

“We serve as regional resource for this and patients in our entire region, if they become very, very sick with the flu, we take excellent care of them and we really have some great patient outcomes,” Dr. Taylor said.

For more insights from Dr. Taylor, including his podcast on how the flu can increase heart attack risk, click here.