Flu increases risk of heart attacks, study finds

The push is on early this year for Americans to get their annual flu shot. It’s an important topic, but what does the flu vaccine have to do with CHQ250’s mission of improving heart health?

There are plenty of misconceptions out there about the flu shot. The reality is this: over 80,000 people died from flu-related illnesses in the United States last season, the highest death toll in more than 40 years, and only 47 perent of Americans get a flu shot.

The flu doesn’t just make you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last January finds it can increase your risk of having a heart attack, too.

The study was led by Dr. Jeff Kwong, an epidemiologist and family physician with the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences and Public Health Ontario in Canada. His research found that individuals are six times more likely to have a heart attack during the week after being diagnosed with influenza, compared to the year before or after the infection.

According to Dr. Kwong, the increased heart attack risk is due to the inflammation and stress on the body experienced during the flu. Reduced oxygen levels and low blood pressure that accompany the flu also increase the risk of forming blood clots that can lead to heart attack.

A normally healthy young person is very unlikely to have a heart attack because of getting the flu. In the study, the people who had heart attacks during the flu were older adults, most over 65, and many had existing risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes.

However, just because you are under 65 with no risk factors for heart attack does not mean that you don’t need a flu shot. It’s rare, but every year, healthy young people end up hospitalized and some even die from the flu. Getting a shot reduces your risk of contracting the virus, and therefore your risk of passing it along to someone much more vulnerable, like an older relative or coworker.

Is the flu shot 100 percent effective? No, but experts agree that with a flu vaccine you’ll have a lower risk of infecting others, and if you do still get the flu it will be less severe. As you make your decision to get the shot or not, consider those around you, too.

CHQ 250 is an initiative of the Chautauqua Health Action Team (CHAT), encouraging you to take action to be one of at least 250 strokes, heart attacks, or related deaths prevented in Chautauqua County in the coming year. This column is written by CHAT members to share information to help you to do your part to live a life free of stroke or heart disease; it is not intended to replace advice provided by your healthcare team. Please direct questions or comments to: activecounty@co.chautauqua.ny.us