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Another reason to get a flu shot: Your heart

If you haven’t gotten your flu shot yet, what are you waiting for? The hour or so it would take is nothing compared with the time you might spend fighting the flu or something worse — like recovering from the heart attack it could trigger.

As of early October 2009, much of the focus has been on swine flu (more formally called H1N1 flu). That’s understandable. H1N1 is new, and no one knows how much damage it will cause. But the “regular” flu isn’t something to sneeze at. Seasonal flu kills about 36,000 people each year in the United States and hospitalizes more than 200,000.

Seasonal flu and H1N1 flu are different in some ways and similar in others. One of the similarities is that both may be hard on the heart.

Flu can harm the heart

Infections of any kind can affect the heart and circulatory system. Influenza (the flu) is no different. It can make breathing difficult, boost blood pressure, make the heart beat faster, and rev up inflammation. All of these force the heart to work harder. A healthy heart usually weathers these changes without a problem; a damaged or weakened heart may not. Infection may also cause a vulnerable, cholesterol-filled plaque inside a coronary artery to break apart. The blood clot that forms to seal the break can block the artery, causing a heart attack or sudden death.

There’s no reason to believe that the H1N1 flu will be any less hazardous to the heart, and some experts worry it could be even more dangerous. Although most people with heart disease are over age 60 — a group that seems to be less susceptible to the H1N1 virus — there could be major complications for those who do catch it.

One reason is that H1N1 flu tends to infect the lungs rather than the upper airway, as is more common with seasonal flu. The accumulation of fluid coupled with flu-related breathing problems could severely stress individuals with heart failure, many of whom already have fluid buildup in the lungs.

Most otherwise healthy folks recover fully from seasonal flu or H1N1 with rest, staying hydrated, and some ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help with pain or fever. Some people, though, will need antiviral medications or hospitalization. Seek medical care if you or the person you are caring for

  • has chest pain or difficulty breathing
  • has purple or blue discoloration of the lips
  • suddenly becomes dizzy
  • has severe or persistent diarrhea or vomiting and is unable to keep liquids down
  • is confused or isn’t responsive.

Prevention is best

You don’t need to hibernate at home until summer. Following these tips can help keep you flu-free:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then throw it in the trash. If you don’t have a tissue or handkerchief, cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm, not into your hands.
  • Try to avoid close contact with people who are sick.

If you feel like you have the flu, let your doctor know right away, especially if you have heart disease. You may benefit from Tamiflu or another antiviral drug, which can reduce the severity of the illness. Don’t stop taking your regular medications without first consulting your health care provider. Let your doctor know about any difficulty breathing, if you suddenly get worse, or if you aren’t getting better after three or four days.

Stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except for getting medical care or other necessities. While you’re sick, limit contact with others as much as possible to keep from infecting them.

January 2010 update

Help prevent coronary artery disease with this heart health report
Click to enlarge

Beating Heart Disease

If you follow the news about heart disease closely, it’s easy to be overwhelmed or confused about what puts you at risk and how you can protect yourself. This report helps you identify the risk factors you can control, which range from medical conditions such as high blood pressure to lifestyle choices such as an unhealthy diet or lack of exercise. Read more

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