Can a Flu Shot Protect Your Heart?
For patients with heart disease, the flu shot may cut cardiovascular risk in half.
For many people the autumn flu shot is an annual health ritual to prevent influenza, which can be a deadly disease for people over age 65 and those with chronic disease or respiratory problems. Few people realize that getting that vaccine is an important part of staying heart healthy. There is now evidence that influenza infection may also play a role in coronary artery disease.
Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common form of heart disease in the United States, affecting over 17 million adults. The condition occurs when the arteries feeding the heart (coronary arteries) are narrowed by the buildup of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other particles on the interior walls of the vessels. These deposits are called plaque. As the arteries become clogged with plaque, less blood and oxygen can get to the heart muscle. In some cases, a plaque bursts open abruptly, blocking the artery and severely limiting the flow of blood to the heart. This may cause a heart attack.
The chain of events contributing to plaque formation is often set in motion by the inflammation of the artery lining. In addition to exposure to irritants such as LDL (bad) cholesterol and cigarette smoke, inflammation can be triggered by an ongoing low-level infection somewhere in the body. An example of this would be advanced gum disease. Scientists now suspect that even a short-term infection, such as a transient bout of the flu, might trigger a sudden inflammation in the vessels that could lead to the rupture of a preexisting arterial plaque.
To test this theory, researchers gave 221 heart patients a single dose of influenza vaccine to see if cardiovascular consequences could be averted by staving off the virus. All of the vaccinated individuals had been treated in the hospital for a serious blockage in the coronary arteries.
At the end of the 12 month follow up period, the group of patients who had been vaccinated suffered approximately half the number of major cardiac events (defined as heart attack, stroke, heart failure, and death) as a similar set of individuals who did not receive the vaccine. The number of people treated in the hospital for arterial blockages was also much lower for the vaccinated patients. However, there was no significant difference in overall cardiovascular deaths between the two groups.
Based on this study and national guidelines most individuals with heart disease should receive the flu vaccine annually. Check with your healthcare provider if you are a candidate.
Questions for You to Consider
- Should I get a flu shot?
Beginning in 2010, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a recommendation that everyone get vaccinated against the flu virus. The flu shot (injected by needle, usually in arm) is safe for most adults and children older than 6 months, including people with heart disease. It is especially important for groups at high risk for flu-related complications. These include:
- Pregnant women
- Children younger than age 5, especially children under than 2 years old
- People age 50 and older
- People of any age with chronic medical conditions
- People who live in nursing homes and long-term care facilities
- People who live with or care for people at high risk of flu complications. This includes:
- Health care workers
- People who live in households with people at high risk
- Caregivers of children younger than 6 month old
Another type of the flu vaccine is given as a nasal spray. This vaccine is recommended only for healthy individuals between the ages of 2 and 49 years old who are not pregnant. The nasal spray is not advised for people with heart disease or other chronic conditions because it uses a live form of the virus. You should always talk to your doctor before getting vaccinated.
- When should I get a flu shot and why do I need one every year?
It is important to get vaccinated before the start of the flu season, which may begin as early as October and usually peaks in January. It takes about 2 weeks after getting the vaccine for your body to build up antibodies to the virus. You need to get a flu shot every year in order to be protected because the virus changes from season to season. Each year, researchers formulate a new vaccine based on the three strains of influenza virus they expect to be most common in the upcoming months.
- What can I do to control coronary artery disease?
If you have been diagnosed with coronary artery disease or had a heart attack, there’s a lot you can do to improve your heart health. A treatment plan that combines diet, exercise, and medicine can help prevent another heart attack or the need for bypass surgery in the future. Steps you can take to protect your arteries include:
- Keep high blood pressure under control.
- Keep your cholesterol levels within a healthy range.
- Don’t smoke.
- Lose weight if you are overweight.
- Treat high blood sugar.
- Get regular physical activity.
- Adopt a heart healthy diet.
- Brush and floss your teeth daily and get regular dental checkups.
- Take your medicines as your doctor has directed.