Flu Shots Protect Hearts, Too

If you have heart disease or have suffered a stroke, the flu can be serious. That's because you are more likely to develop flu-related complications. Getting a flu shot every year is the best way to protect yourself from the flu.


If you've ever had influenza—commonly known as the flu—you know it can hit fast and leave you feeling miserable, achy and barely able to get out of bed. For most of us, the flu is a big nuisance, making us miss work and put plans on hold. 

But if you have heart disease or have suffered a stroke, the flu can be much more serious. That’s because you are more likely to develop flu-related complications, including sinus and ear infections, pneumonia, or heart attack. More rarely, you could also develop inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) or the protective sac around the heart (pericarditis).

In fact, many people with heart disease and other chronic health conditions die from the flu each year. Infections like the flu or pneumonia can place added strain on the heart and other organs. But getting vaccinated against the flu can prevent many of these deaths. 

Getting a flu shot every year is the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from the flu. It can help keep you from getting sick and suffering related complications. 


light bulb Did You Know? Compared with people who don’t have heart disease, those who do:
–Have a 10X higher risk of heart attack within 3 days of getting the flu
–Are more likely to have a heart attack even weeks after the flu
Source: National Foundation for Infection Diseases

Understanding the Flu Virus and Vaccines

Each year, the flu strikes up to  1 out of 5 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The infection, which spreads easily through tiny droplets in the air when someone coughs or sneezes, sends more than 200,000 people on average to the hospital for flu-related complications yearly. 

Getting a flu shot is your best protection. According to the CDC, during the 2017 flu season, vaccination prevented:

  • 7 million flu illnesses
  • Over 100,000 flu-related hospitalizations
  • 8,000 flu deaths

Just like eating heart-healthy foods, exercising regularly and following up with routine health visits can help protect your heart health, so can rolling up your sleeve and getting a flu shot each year. 

light bulb Get Your Flu Shot
Be sure to get a flu shot this season, ideally before people start getting the flu in your area. Check out the weekly flu activity in your state.

Flu Complications 

If you have heart disease, you’re more likely to become seriously ill from the flu or other respiratory infections—those that affect your nose, throat or lungs. 

Complications from the flu include:

  • Severe illness, including pneumonia and inflammation—or swelling—of the heart muscle (myocarditis) or the protective sac around the heart (pericarditis)
  • Worsening heart disease or other health problems 
  • Greater chance of having a heart attack  
  • Hospitalization
  • Death

Having the flu can place added stress on the body and the heart. It can quicken your heart rate, raise your body temperature and ramp up your body’s fight or flight response, all of which can make heart attack more likely. As well, your body has more inflammation when fighting infection; this may cause plaque that lines the blood vessel to rupture.

It’s important to remember that complications from the flu can occur even when conditions such as heart disease or diabetes are well controlled. That’s why experts urge that everyone 6 months of age and older get a flu shot each year. 

If you need more convincing, the flu vaccine carries more heart benefits, too. Annual flu shots are:

  • Linked to lower rates of cardiovascular events, especially among those who’ve had a recent heart attack 
  • Shown to cut the risk of death in people with heart failure  and lower the likelihood of going to the hospital for cardiovascular problems  
  • Associated with about 20% reduction in death (from cardiovascular disease or any cause) when compared with no vaccination 

Another plus? When you get vaccinated, you don’t just protect yourself. You are also be doing your part to help protect other people around you from the flu.


How Does the Vaccine Work? 

Flu viruses change from year to year. Labs make a new vaccine to match the three-to-four strains, or types, of flu viruses that researchers predict will be the most common for the upcoming season. That’s why you need to get a flu shot every year. 

Once you’ve been vaccinated, your body will develop antibodies to help you fight off the strains of the virus that the vaccine targets. It takes about two weeks for you to become protected. 

A health care professional will give you the vaccine. It is most often given as a shot, or injection, into the muscle in your upper arm. There also is a nasal flu vaccine that is sprayed into your nose. Unlike the flu shot, the nasal flu vaccine contains live, but weakened virus, and may not be a good option for people with heart disease or other conditions. 

If you are older than 65, you can get a flu shot that guards against four strains of flu or one that guards against three strains of flu. 

Ask your doctor about which one is best for you and your condition. 

Where Can I Get the Vaccine? 

Many primary care and cardiology offices start offering flu vaccines, which are often covered by health insurance, as early as September.

Start by calling your doctor’s office. Many medical offices receive early shipments of flu vaccine for people who are more prone to serious illness, including pregnant women and people with cardiovascular, diabetes and other health conditions to help assure you’re protected. 

You may also be able to get a flu shot at:

  • Your pharmacy
  • Your workplace
  • Community health clinics

To find a place near you to get a vaccine, you can visit VaccineFinder.org.


When to Get a Flu Shot

If you have heart disease—or any other health conditions that affect your body’s ability to fight off infection—it’s best to get a flu shot early on, ideally by the end of October. This way, you’ll be protected at the start of the flu season. 

The flu season usually begins in October and peaks sometime between December and mid-February. But flu activity can occur into April and even May. So even when winter rolls around, or the flu season has kicked into high gear, it’s not too late to get a flu shot and protect yourself and those around you. 

What If I Get the Flu?

If you think you have the flu, it’s important to: 

  • Take care of yourself
  • Stay home from work to avoid spreading the virus
  • Not make any decisions to adjust your regular medications without talking with your health care professional 
  • Contact your health care professional right away to discuss treatment options

Antiviral medications are available with a prescription. These medicines can make the illness milder, shorten the length of time you’re sick and may help guard against flu-related complications. But these medicines work best when they are started within 48 hours of noticing symptoms. 

Your health professional is in the best position to decide whether an antiviral is right for you and any other members of your household.

Remember that people with the flu are most contagious, or able to spread the infection to others, in the first three-to-four days after their illness starts, according to the CDC.

Early Flu Symptoms

Unlike the common cold, the flu comes on suddenly. People who have the flu usually experience some or all these symptoms:

  • Fever, though not always
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Chills
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose

Some people may have vomiting or diarrhea, but these are more likely in children than adults.

Other Ways to Stay Healthy 

Don’t forget other simple steps to help prevent the flu and other contagious illnesses:

  • Cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze
  • Throw out used tissues 
  • Avoid rubbing your eyes, nose and mouth 
  • Wash your hands often using soap and warm water 
  • Avoid being around people who have the flu as much as possible


Stay Up-To-Date With Other Vaccines 

Vaccines help keep us healthy and can save lives. 

In addition to the flu vaccine, ask your care team whether you need to get vaccinated against: 

  • Pneumococcal disease, which includes pneumonia, meningitis and bloodstream infections (pneumococcal vaccine)
  • Tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough (Tdap vaccine, a booster shot, is needed every 10 years); diphtheria, though rare in the United States, can damage the heart
  • Shingles, also called herpes zoster, which is a reactivation of chicken pox in the body often later in life (zoster vaccine); studies have shown that people who had shingles are much more likely to have a heart attack or stroke, especially in the first year after being diagnosed with shingles, than people who did not have shingles

You may also need additional vaccinations depending on your age. Be sure to write down what vaccines you get, including when and where you received them, and keep this information with your updated medication list.  


Questions to Ask Your Health Care Team

  • What’s the difference between the types of flu vaccines I can receive?
  • Which flu vaccine is best for me?
  • Does your office offer flu shots? Do I need to make an appointment?
  • Why is the nasal spray vaccine only recommended for those 2 to 49 years old?
  • How can the flu make my heart condition worse?
  • How long does the vaccine take to start working?
  • How will I know if I have the flu, even a mild version?
  • What are antiviral medicines and when are they used?
  • How will I be able to tell if I have a cold or the flu?
  • What other, if any, vaccines do I need?

 


Published: October 2019
Medical Reviewers: Susan A. Matulevicius, MD, FACC; Vasundhara Muthu, MD
CardioSmart Editor-in-Chief: Martha Gulati, MD, FACC

Infographic: Flu Shots and Your Heart

More About Flu Shots

Flu Shots Protect Hearts, Too
Flu Shots: 5 Common Myths

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