With the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors are more concerned than ever that patients get their annual flu shot. The flu vaccine is very important this year, because getting the flu could make it easier to catch COVID-19. And if you have to be admitted to the hospital with the flu, you could be exposed to the virus. Having COVID-19 and the flu together could be particularly dangerous.
But there is another good reason to roll up your sleeve: a flu shot might prevent a heart attack, stroke, or other heart problem.
A number of studies have shown that having the flu can raise your risk for various heart conditions. A new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that having the flu can increase your risk of some sudden serious heart problems.
Researchers looked at the medical records of almost 90,000 people who were hospitalized with the flu. They found that 12% had experienced a sudden heart event, such as a condition called acute heart failure, when the heart can’t pump enough blood to the rest of the body, and acute ischemic heart disease, when the heart muscle itself isn’t getting enough blood and oxygen.
The flu virus is thought to harm the heart by triggering a strong immune response, which can lead to inflammation. Increased inflammation may then cause plaque within blood vessel walls to become active and break open (much like an inflamed pimple can pop open). If the plaque contents block the blood vessel completely, this may cause a heart attack or stroke.
A 2018 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found other links between heart health and the flu. Investigators looked at cases of the flu and other respiratory infections in people who had been put in the hospital for a heart attack. They found a significant link between the flu and heart attacks. The heart attacks occurred within a week of being diagnosed with the flu.
But a flu shot can make a big difference, according to research in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers looked at 6 different studies involving more than 6,700 people. They found that people who got the flu shot had a 36% lower risk for heart attacks, strokes, and other heart issues. Protection from the flu was even greater among those who had recently had a heart attack—and it lasted for the whole next year!
Everyone 6 months and older should get a flu shot every season, according to the CDC. People who are age 65 or older can get a higher-dose form of the vaccine. A New England Medical Journal study showed that the higher-dose version is 24% more effective in keeping flu away than the regular dose shot in older people. Although you may still get the flu after getting the vaccine, it will probably be less severe.
So if you didn’t get the vaccine in the early fall, make a plan to get it now. It’s not too late to avoid the flu and the heart problems that sometimes come with it!