The flu is miserable for anyone who contracts it, and it can be dangerous for some people. This fall, many healthcare providers are reminding their patients to get a flu shot. Are there special precautions that people with heart disease or congenital heart defects should take? Read on to learn more about the flu and steps you can take to protect yourself.
Does the seasonal flu present special issues for patients with cardiovascular disease?
While the seasonal flu may present significant health risks for anyone, it is of special concern to those who are very old or very young, have a compromised immune system, or have a chronic condition, including heart disease. Patients with advanced heart disease may be at greater risk for flu-related complications. Here’s why:
- Fever, a standard symptom of the flu that increases heart rate, can be dangerous for patients with coronary heart disease (blockages in the heart arteries). When your body has to work harder to fight off the flu or other illnesses, your heart has to keep up with these extra demands. It adjusts by increasing your heart rate and the amount of blood that it circulates. Normally, your heart can keep up very well, but for some with significant heart disease, it is harder. As your heart rate increases, this can result in more episodes of angina.
- The frequent and harsh cough often associated with the seasonal flu can cause problems for patients who experience shortness of breath due to heart failure, lung disease, or smoking. If you have heart failure or lung disease, or if you are a long-time smoker, the flu can further tax your breathing. Heart disease can affect your lung function, so infection with the flu can make your lung function even worse.
What about children and adults with congenital heart disease? Does seasonal flu put them at unique risk?
Children easily can be exposed to the flu at childcare programs and schools. Some children and adults with congenital heart disease may be especially sensitive to the flu and other respiratory illnesses. This is particularly true for those who have a delicate balance of blood flow to the lungs.
How can I avoid getting the seasonal flu?
If you have heart disease or another chronic condition, or if you have a congenital heart defect, the best strategy for coping during flu season is to avoid getting the flu in the first place. Getting the flu shot is a good idea for most people, although you should talk with your doctor or other healthcare provider to make certain the vaccine is safe for you.
The flu is highly contagious, so take extra precautions to avoid the spread of germs:
- Try to avoid contact with, or getting coughed on by, those who have the flu.
- Follow good handwashing and hygiene habits. Whether or not someone at your home or work has the flu, wash your hands frequently and encourage others to do the same. If you can’t wash your hands, consider using hand sanitizer.
What if I get sick with the flu? What should I do?
Despite your best efforts, you may still get the flu. If that happens, take steps to promote a quick recovery and avoid complications. Here are some tips:
- Know the symptoms. If you experience fever (usually high), severe aches and pains in your joints and muscles and around your eyes, generalized weakness, flushed skin, red watery eyes, headache, and a dry cough, you may have the flu and should seek immediate treatment.
- Don’t ignore the symptoms. If you spot the symptoms early, you may benefit from some specific antiviral medications. Your healthcare provider will know if these medications are right for you.
- Take it easy. If you have the flu, don’t force yourself to get to work, school, or other activities. First, you don’t want to spread the flu to others, and second, your body needs rest in order to recover.
- Stay hydrated. Drinking fluids is especially important when you have the flu. Drink water, juices, and soup.
- Consult your doctor or pharmacist before taking over-the-counter cold or flu remedies. They will help to ensure that the active ingredients that treat flu symptoms do not interact with your heart medications or heart condition.
- Be on the lookout for complications. The flu can predispose you to develop pneumonia, and the added work of fighting off infection can stress your heart. Either of these conditions could exacerbate congestive heart failure or bring on angina. Contact your healthcare provider immediately if your flu symptoms worsen, or if new symptoms.
What should I do if I have other questions?
Ask them. Get in touch with your healthcare provider and ask every question you have. Any time you have concerns about your health, the conversations you have with your doctor are the key to successful results. Be sure your doctor is aware of all of your symptoms as well as all of the medications, vitamins, and supplements you may be taking.
And, for more information about the flu, visit the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
We hope you will also use this website to learn more about your cardiovascular health and treatment options. SecondsCount.org was developed by the Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions (SCAI), the medical society for interventional cardiologists. Learn more here about interventional cardiologists.
This website and the information contained herein does not, and is not intended to, constitute comprehensive professional medical services or treatment of any kind. This website and the information contained herein is not intended or designed to provide medical diagnosis or medical advice and must be considered as an educational service only.