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What flu season means for heart patients

Heart healthy tips for navigating flu season

African-American woman wearing a hat and blowing her nose with a tissue

What flu season means for heart patients

With flu season in full effect, many of our patients at Pauley Heart Center  are wondering how the flu might impact their heart health. While we continue the fight against COVID-19 and its variants, this year’s flu season brings with it an increased awareness of the seasonal family of viruses known as influenza.

Heart conditions increase risk of complications

Dr. Antonio AbbateCommonly referred to as "the flu", influenza is a viral infection which attacks the lungs and major breathing passages. While this infection typically causes a fever and sometimes pneumonia, it can also be fatal. Normally, our bodies are able to fight off the infection and return us to normal in a few days. But some groups of people are at higher risk for major health problems resulting from the flu.

“Acute infections, like influenza, negatively affect cardiac function,” says Pauley physician, Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D. “And patients with heart disease who become ill are at high risk.”

This is because viral infections make our bodies work much harder, especially our hearts. As the body is fighting off the infection, it releases chemicals which help fight off infection, but also cause inflammation and higher blood pressure. Both of which are bad news for those with heart problems. New data suggests the risk of heart attack nearly doubles in the week following an infection like that from the flu.

As Dr. Abbate describes it, this is because “chronic conditions like heart failure weaken the immune system.” This means that people with weaker hearts might also have weaker immune systems, putting them at risk of complications from any sort of viral infection.

“Prevention is the best cure.”

People with heart conditions are not guaranteed to get the flu every year, nor will their infections always be serious. However, those with heart problems should take extra precautions to ensure they remain healthy during flu season.

According to Dr. Abbate, “hand washing, social distancing and vaccinations” are the most effective methods for preventing infection and spread of the flu. Especially for patients with heart problems. And for those at high risk, Dr. Abbate’s advice is simple: “Prevention is the best cure.”

The flu vaccine is one of the most effective tools in preventing infection and transmission. In fact, the American Heart Association estimates that those who have been vaccinated against the flu are 18% less likely to die from heart problems, and 13% less likely to experience any type of major heart problem. “The influenza vaccination reduces the risk of infection,” says Dr. Abbate. “But it also reduces the risk of adverse cardiac events related to influenza.”

Additionally, it’s important to talk to your doctor if you think you might have the flu or any other infection. “Many patients die of influenza each year,” says Dr. Abbate. “Patients should consult with their physicians when diagnosed with influenza.” Responding to symptoms early allows your doctor to start the necessary treatment before the infection becomes serious. It can also lessen the severity of the infection and reduce its duration.

For more information on heart health, visit vcuhealth.org/heart.