Flu and Your Heart Health: What’s the Connection?

February 15, 2018

Doctors have long known that there is a correlation between the flu virus and an increase in heart attack risk following the illness for people with underlying cardiovascular disease, but a January report in the New England Journal of Medicine has provided some substantial medical evidence. The study showed that people were six times more likely to have a heart attack in the seven days after a lab-confirmed bout with the flu than in the year before or after contracting the flu.

We checked in with Dr. Millee Singh of Penn Cardiology in Somers Point to get her take on the study.

"Although I do not believe that this study alone can make a direct link between the influenza and heart attack,  I do believe that there is a correlation between the increased stress within the body during an acute infection like the flu, and an increased risk of health complications within the heart and other organs. This is likely more prevalent within the patient population which already has co- existing medical issues. It is very important for patients to take influenza seriously and seek medical evaluation if they believe they may be infected and follow with preventative guidelines."

People with heart disease are not only at greater risk of having a heart attack after the flu, they are also more likely to be hospitalized as a result of the flu. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among adults hospitalized with the flu during the 2015-2016 influenza season, 41% had heart disease, putting it among the most commonly-occurring chronic conditions in flu patients. Heart disease includes heart attack, acute coronary syndrome, angina, heart failure, hypertension, pulmonary heart disease, heart valve disorders, atrial fibrillation and other arrhythmias, and congenital heart defects.

What You Can Do
While it is recommended that everyone takes steps to avoid contracting the flu, people with heart disease are especially urged to do so. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Get Your Flu Shot: The flu shot is safe for people with heart disease. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend getting your flu shot in early October, it is not too late to get a shot. Keep in mind it will take two weeks for the antibodies to build up in your system. The flu season usually peaks in February, but the season runs until May, so there is still a benefit in getting your shot now, especially if you have heart disease. Be sure to also mark your calendar next year so you don’t forget to get your shot early.
  2. Follow Basic Flu Prevention Precautions: To avoid spreading the flu or contracting it, you should always cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, throw tissues away immediately after use, wash your hands frequently with soap and water, and avoid touching your face.
  3. If You Have Flu-Like Symptoms: Call your doctor right away if you have flu-like symptoms to see if you should be evaluated or receive antiviral medications, which can prevent the virus from replicating and reduce the severity of your symptoms. Be sure to avoid coming into contact with other people for 24 hours after your fever ends. If you experience any changes in breathing, be sure to report them to your doctor. If you have heart disease, be especially aware of possible heart attack symptoms.

Shore Medical Center and Penn Cardiology
Shore Medical Center's Cardiovascular Services features a team of highly trained and experienced doctors, nurses and support staff who provide comprehensive cardiovascular health services with a special emphasis on advanced diagnosis, education and prevention. With its partnership with Penn Cardiology, Shore has brought university-setting cardiac and vascular services to the community hospital environment. The clinical team at Shore Medical Center Cardiovascular Services use sophisticated technology for diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the heart and circulatory system. Through its clinical affiliation with the nationally renowned Penn Heart & Vascular Network program at the Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, Shore has continued access to the newest advances, techniques and clinical research in the fight against heart disease. Click here to learn more about Penn Cardiology Somers Point.

Shore’s Penn affiliation also gives patients access to the Penn Heart Rescue program -- assuring 24-hour, seven day a week availability for emergency transport to Philadelphia via ambulance or PennStar helicopter, should the need arise. Shore Medical Center's comprehensive cardiac care program includes advanced diagnostic capabilities and treatment options. Services include prevention, rehabilitation, and education for those with coronary and vascular disease. Shore’s emergency department has the latest in clot-dissolving medications and life-saving treatment for heart attack. Shore also offers a non-invasive heart and lung testing center featuring cardiac stress testing, holter-monitoring and transesophageal echocardiography.