Features November 2011 Issue

Know How to Protect Your Heart and Yourself During Flu Season

Getting a flu shot is the most important step you can take to stay healthy this winter, especially if you’re at high risk for a heart attack.

Wintertime brings with it crisp air, holiday gatherings, and, unfortunately, the onset of flu season. And for heart patients, influenza is an especially dangerous condition.

Leslie Cho, MD, Director of Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation at Cleveland Clinic, urges all heart patients to get a flu shot as early in the season as possible.

“Flu, in a heart disease patient, can lead to death, so it is crucial to get a flu shot,” she says. “Also, having the flu can trigger your risk of heart attack and stroke.”

Dr. Cho, however, warns that heart patients should get the actual shot, not the vaccine that comes in a nasal mist. “The live vaccine is not recommended for heart disease patients,” she explains.

While there are no heart-related conditions that would preclude you from getting a flu shot, there are some medical reasons why certain individuals should avoid the vaccine. If you’re allergic to chicken eggs, for example, or if you’ve had a bad reaction to the flu vaccine previously, you should avoid the shot or at least talk with your doctor about your options.

Likewise, if you are sick, especially with a fever, you should wait until you feel better to get the shot.

Flu Risks and the Heart
The primary reason why the flu is especially dangerous for heart patients appears to be that influenza causes acute and often severe inflammation in the body, and that can cause otherwise stable plaque in the arteries to rupture and block a blood vessel, thus leading to a heart attack or stroke.

Because influenza is a respiratory disease, if you already have a compromised cardiorespiratory system with a condition such as COPD, for example, then getting a flu vaccine is even more important. Asthma also raises your risk of flu complications.

Research has shown that one in three cardiac patients do not see themselves at a higher risk of influenza-based complications.

In addition to getting a flu shot, you should take steps to avoid prolonged exposure to a flu virus or any other kind of virus. That means frequently washing your hands and keeping your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth as much as possible, as they are the main entry points for the flu virus.

A diet rich in vitamins C, D, E and B vitamins is also associated with a stronger immune system. Exercise and plenty of rest should also be part of your routine, but be careful about exercising in the cold, as that also carries heart risks.