Story at a glance
- Most people who catch the flu only encounter mild symptoms, but for those with underlying health conditions the flu can turn deadly.
- Conditions like asthma, diabetes and heart disease carry an increased risk for health complications from the flu virus.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said only 23.4 percent of American adults have received the flu vaccine so far this season.
As flu season begins, getting a flu shot may not only protect you against catching the virus. It could also protect your heart.
Most people who catch the flu develop mild symptoms, but some flu illnesses can lead to more severe outcomes, especially for those with underlying health conditions, like asthma, diabetes or heart disease.
Nicole Weinberg, cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California, told Well + Good that, “Even though the flu is respiratory, it can still impact the rest of your body—including your heart."
That overlaps with a study by the New England Journal of Medicine that found there is a, “significant association between respiratory infections, especially influenza, and acute myocardial infarction.”
The best defense against the flu and potential serious illnesses is getting a flu vaccine. But so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 23.4 percent of adults 18 and older have received a flu vaccine. That’s almost the same amount of people, 25.5 percent, who said they don’t plan to get the flu shot at all.
There are four big ways that getting a flu shot can impact your heart
In some cases, the flu can cause blood pressure to rise, which then raises a person’s risk of stroke and other health complications. Weinberg explained that, “Whenever the body is under stress for a number of different reasons, you can have these responses in your system.”
She also said that doctors typically monitor people who already have high blood pressure, “very closely,” if they catch the flu.
Blood clots are another risk if you develop the flu. Weinberg explained that when someone has the flu, it can cause the body’s protein levels to increase which, when released into your bloodstream, can lead to more clotting. She also notes that, "You have less blood flow when you're bedbound, and that can cause more clots to form," she says.
If you catch the flu, you can also run the risk of causing heart inflammation, known as myocarditis. That can cause chest pain, shortness of breath and a pounding heart. The most serious risk is the flu virus getting directly into cardiac tissue, according to Amesh A. Adjala, senior scholar at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Lastly, there’s research that links having the flu with heart attacks. The Annals of Internal Medicine found that in a study of almost 90,000 adults hospitalized with the flu, almost 12 percent of patients suffered from serious heart complications, like a heart attack.
In an era where vaccines are on the minds of most Americans, a flu shot is another tool to help combat risks to public health.
"I think the flu vaccine is commonly overlooked. About 45 percent of US adults get a flu vaccine each year. This went up to 48 percent last flu season (our first season during the COVID-19 pandemic), and I'm hoping this percentage will continue to increase this season, with vaccines becoming easier to access and the need to prevent these respiratory infections in our communities," Annette Reagan, a PhD assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of California Los Angeles, to Well + Good.
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