Heart disease, an all-encompassing term that includes several specific heart-related conditions, becomes a rising concern for people with certain risk factors. Meanwhile, flu season provides a yearly reminder of the common, contagious respiratory illness and possible resultant flu complications. But did you know that these two conditions are somewhat related?
The Heart and Influenza
According to Texas Heart Institute Journal, the arrival of flu is associated with "a significant increase in cardiovascular deaths." The CDC reports that, during the 2014-2015 flu season, half of adults hospitalized for influenza had heart disease. It doesn't take a medical expert to surmise how these two conditions go together: Older adults have higher rates of heart disease and are also at greatest risk for contracting influenza. Higher rates of myocardial infarction (heart attacks) occur during the winter and match the season's increased incidence of influenza.
Flu complications affect the heart in numerous ways. For example, symptoms worsen significantly among people with congestive heart failure. A number of other heart conditions increase the risk of the flu getting out of hand:
- Congenital heart defects.
- Heart valve disorders.
- Pulmonary heart disease.
- Hypertensive heart disease.
- Atrial fibrillation and other arrhythmias.
Influenza, the Heart, and Pneumonia
The cardiopulmonary system includes the heart and lungs, and in order for the heart to do its job properly, it needs oxygenated blood to supply both the body and itself. Pneumonia, which is among the deadliest of flu complications, profoundly affects this system. The lungs fill with drainage, severely compromising their ability to send the heart nutritious blood. The heart compensates for this by working harder to send blood faster. Older adults are particularly prone to developing pneumonia, further highlighting the connection between some of the worst-case scenarios related to the flu and heart problems.
Indirect Flu Complications
Influenza leads to a number of complications across the body which, while not directly related to your heart, can pose a threat to your cardiovascular system. A high fever raises your heart rate, for example. The flu increases dehydration, already problematic for many older adults, which affects the heart's electrical system. To operate properly, this system, which tells the different chambers of the heart when to beat, depends on a delicate chemical balance, but dehydration reduces the amount of two important chemicals: calcium and potassium. Therefore, heart patients taking calcium or potassium supplements are especially at risk of flu-derived complications.
Prevention Is Key
As with other communicable diseases, prevention is the best medicine to ward off influenza's danger to the heart and all other parts of the body. By far, the most effective preventive is the flu shot. Affordable and readily available, influenza immunizations are safe, even for people with heart disease.
Whether you're vaccinated or not, other simple safeguards can help prevent both you and the people around you from contracting the influenza virus. The CDC advises several preventive actions:
- When coughing or sneezing, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- After coughing or sneezing, wash your hands with soap and warm water. Wash them frequently, whether you cough/sneeze or not.
- Keep surfaces clean and disinfected.
- Heart-failure patients with the flu should "promptly report" any changes in their breathing.
While it may be difficult to isolate yourself from family members, one of the best ways you can help is to stay home if you are sick with the flu. Avoid going out until your fever has subsided for at least 24 hours. If you report flu symptoms to your health care provider within 24 hours, antiviral drugs may reduce the disease's effects.
If you have heart disease, take the flu even more seriously. At a minimum, the vaccine will spare you a miserable bout of influenza, and it could also protect you against a potentially life-threatening situation.