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Can the Flu Trigger a Heart Attack?

Feb 07, 2024
Can the Flu Trigger a Heart Attack?
Having the flu is miserable. But did you know it can trigger a heart attack or cause other serious heart issues? Read to learn more, including steps to protect yourself.

Hopefully, you’ve had your flu vaccine and will escape getting the virus this season. And not just for the obvious reasons — feeling crummy, missing work and socializing. Though not widely discussed, the flu can also trigger severe heart complications and even a heart attack. 

Dr. Hector Fabregas and his Healthstone Primary Care team advocate preventive medicine and patient education. Since February is American Heart Month and the middle of flu season, they devote this month’s blog to explaining how the flu can negatively impact your heart and the steps to help you stay healthy. 

It’s true, the flu can trigger a heart attack

The flu can trigger a heart attack. In fact, adults are six times more likely to suffer a heart attack within a week of being diagnosed with the flu.

One in eight adults hospitalized with the flu had a serious cardiac event. Of those, nearly one-third were treated in the intensive care unit (ICU), and 7% died.

A serious cardiac event includes heart attacks and other conditions that damage your heart, including acute heart failure and a sudden reduction in blood flow to the heart.

Those who didn’t suffer a severe cardiac event experienced other serious heart complications, including myocarditis (heart muscle inflammation) and pericarditis (inflammation around the heart).

Age, smoking, diabetes, kidney disease, and existing heart conditions increase the risk of a flu-triggered heart attack. However, otherwise healthy adults are at risk, too.

How the flu can cause a heart attack

The flu is a seasonal viral infection mainly affecting your nose and lungs. However, the infection causes inflammation throughout your body. This impacts your heart and coronary arteries, increasing blood coagulation (causing clots), elevating blood pressure, and lowering blood oxygen.

These changes force your heart to work harder, overextending and weakening the heart muscles. When the flu makes breathing difficult, the respiratory distress compounds the stress on your heart. This stress, in turn, can trigger a heart attack, cause irregular heartbeats, and exacerbate existing conditions such as heart failure.

If your coronary arteries are already clogged (atherosclerosis), the additional inflammation caused by your viral infection can cause the fatty plaque to rupture. Pieces of the plaque may get stuck in the artery, prompting a heart attack by stopping blood flow.

Clogged arteries decrease the blood supply to your heart, and the flu further lessens the oxygen supply. Their combined effect spells trouble for your heart, possibly leading to a heart attack.

Preventing flu-induced heart issues

The best way to protect yourself from flu-induced heart problems, of course, is not to get the flu. First and foremost, that means getting an annual flu vaccine

Vaccination can lower your risk of a heart attack by 36% to 50%. And if you get sick despite getting a flu shot, having had a flu shot significantly reduces your risk of being hospitalized.

Other ways to avoid getting the flu include:

  • Getting antiviral medications within the first two days of flu symptoms
  • Avoiding contact with people who have the flu
  • Not touching your mouth and nose
  • Washing your hands regularly
  • Eating healthfully and exercising 
  • Not smoking

Good nutrition and regular exercise keep your immune system strong and better to fend off the flu and other winter viruses.

To schedule an evaluation and learn about your risk for flu complications, call the location closest to you. We have offices in Weston, Pembroke Pines, or Davie, Florida, or request an appointment via the online booking tool.