Flu season is not here yet, but flu shot season is.
The flu vaccine prevents the misery of influenza and helps protect vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, children and the chronically ill. But did you know that a flu shot might also prevent a heart attack or stroke?
Influenza is a highly contagious respiratory viral infection that is easily spread through coughing, sneezing or talking. Flu can cause high fevers, chills, sore throat, cough, congestion, muscle or body aches, and headaches. Some people, often children, may also have vomiting and diarrhea. And flu can be dangerous: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 49,000 flu-related deaths occur each year.
While anyone can have complications from the flu, people with cardiovascular problems are at higher risk to develop them, which can lead to respiratory failure, pneumonia, heart attack or stroke, and can worsen preexisting conditions like heart failure, diabetes or lung disease, including asthma.
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A study published in the medical journal JAMA found that getting a flu vaccine reduced the risk of heart attack, stroke, heart failure or other major cardiac events — including death — by about a third over the following year.
It’s possible, though not yet proven, that flu increases the risk of a clot forming in blood vessels or can provoke inflammatory changes in the blood vessels that contribute to heart attacks.
The best way to prevent influenza is to get vaccinated every year. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older get vaccinated every fall. While most people have no side effects from the vaccine, some people might develop a mild fever, muscle aches or mild arm soreness. Some people claim that the flu vaccine actually causes the flu; this is not so.
Preventive actions, such as avoiding close contact with infected people, covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, and frequent hand washing, are also recommended to help reduce the spread of flu germs.
The more people get vaccinated against the flu, the fewer people will have it, so by lowering your own risk you are also lowering the risk for your children, grandchildren, co-workers and friends.
Finally, if you have a higher risk for heart attack or stroke, talk to your doctor about whether a flu vaccine is a wise choice for potentially life-saving protection.
Dr. Susan Smyth is Medical Director of the University of Kentucky Gill Heart and Vascular Institute.