Can a Flu Shot Help Your Heart?

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A flu shot can protect you against one of winter’s miseries, and if you have ever had a heart attack, it could also help guard you against having another, a new study shows.

The study, led by Morteza Naghavi, MD, of the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in Houston, found that heart-attack patients who received a flu shot had only a 33 percent chance of a second heart attack or chest pain (called angina) compared to those who skipped the vaccination.

The results of the study were published in the Dec. 19 issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association (AHA). It’s the first study to link a vaccine to the reduction of heart disease, and it could be a major breakthrough if future studies confirm that the flu plays a role in heart disease, according to the AHA.

“The flu is an infection that we believe has a wide range of effects,’’ says Naghavi, co-director of the Vulnerable Plaque Research Program at the health sciences center and Texas Heart Institute.

How does the flu affect your heart?

The tissues in your body become inflamed when you’re fighting an infection like the influenza virus, Naghavi says. Researchers believe inflammation may also be linked to the buildup of plaque – fatty deposits on the lining of your blood vessels – and the formation of blood clots that can cause a sudden heart attack, he says.

The study of 218 coronary heart disease patients in Houston reinforces the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that chronic heart disease patients be vaccinated annually against the flu, says Naghavi.

“The flu vaccine is very, very widely distributed. If there is a minor risk (of a heart attack), that ought to be prevented, and the prevention is pretty easy,’’ Naghavi says.

However, only about half of the 70 to 76 million US residents at high risk for complications from the flu have received the vaccine in previous flu seasons. The high-risk groups include approximately 35 million people aged 65 or older, 33 to 39 million people under age 65 with high-risk medical conditions, and 2 million pregnant women.

How available is the vaccine?

Despite the low supplies of flu vaccine this fall, you still have time to be vaccinated before the flu hits your area, say the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Influenza activity in the US has been lower this year than last year, and during 14 of the last 18 years, the flu season did not peak until January or later, the CDC says.

In addition, supply problems no longer exist because the final 30 percent of the 75 million doses of the vaccine will be delivered by the end of December, CDC spokesman Charles Fallis says. “We expect to have enough to cover everyone,’’ says Fallis.

The vaccine is effective 10 days to two weeks after inoculation, and studies have shown it is 70 to 90 percent effective in preventing illness in healthy young adults who receive it. In the elderly, and those people with certain chronic medical conditions, the vaccine may be slightly less effective. It has been shown, however, that when people who were vaccinated get the flu, their risk of hospitalization and death is greatly reduced.

There are now prescription medications available to help fight the influenza virus. In November, the US Food and Drug Administration approved Tamiflu, which was originally marketed last year for people ages 13 and older with flu symptoms, as a preventative medicine. Tamiflu is not a substitute for the vaccine, but can help prevent the flu if taken daily for seven days after you’ve been exposed to someone with influenza, according to the maker of the drug, Hoffmann-La Roche Inc.

Although the flu can be deadly – killing more than 20,000 people each year – most people who get it suffer through it for a week or two, typically with a sore throat, muscle aches, chills, and a fever. Health officials offer these tips as a way to defend yourself against colds and flu during the winter:

  • Exercise regularly, eat nutritious foods, and get plenty of rest.
  • Wash your hands often. You can pick up germs from even a handshake.
  • Avoid touching the moist areas of your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Avoid sharing cups, glasses, toothbrushes, or utensils among family members or friends.

The CDC suggests contacting your healthcare provider or local health department if you want to be vaccinated. The CDC’s flu tracker can show you if the flu bug is spreading in your state.

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