How the flu can hurt your heart health

Woman in red with fever

Another reason to avoid the flu

For women with heart disease, influenza, or “flu,” is of special concern — especially this flu season, which has been particularly severe and contagious. Women with cardiovascular conditions may be at higher risk of complications from catching the flu.

Across the nation, patients are asking: How can I prevent the flu? Is it worth getting the flu shot? And what are flu-associated risks for women with a heart condition?

Influenza raises risk of cardiac complications

As physicians, we worry a little more about patients with heart disease during the winter months, as catching the flu may raise the risk for cardiac complications. There are a number of potential explanations for this. The flu can increase stress level, which in turn will increase heart rate and blood pressure. This puts a strain on the heart and can make an already unhealthy heart vulnerable. The flu also excites the immune system, and there is speculation that this can predispose clots to form and plaques to rupture in the vessels supplying blood to the heart. This, in turn, can result in a heart attack. Because flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea and sweats can also be warning signs of heart disease, it’s important to be sure of what is actually causing the symptoms.

Know your symptoms — and when it’s an emergency

“Getting a flu shot is a particularly good idea if you have underlying heart disease or risk factors for heart disease.”

By understanding the distinctions between the flu, a common-cold and symptoms of heart disease, women can better understand what is considered and emergency situation and what is not. Those with a common cold will experience coughing and chest discomfort, sore throat, and stuffy or runny nose. Flu symptoms are often described differently, as they generally come on sooner, are more severe and may make you feel miserable from feeling fatigued and weak. Unlike the flu, heart conditions might cause a heaviness or tightness in the chest, shortness of breath or less typically, nausea, indigestion, sleep disturbances, jaw or arm pain, palpitations and anxiety, but not fever, chills, vomiting or diarrhea, which are more classic symptoms of the flu.

Protect your heart health

For those with heart disease, it is critical to do whatever you can to avoid the flu, including getting a flu shot. Although getting a flu shot won’t guarantee you’ll avoid the flu, it will decrease the likelihood of catching the illness and may reduce the severity of the symptoms. In fact, two recent studies have shown that for high-risk patients, receiving a flu shot might decrease the likelihood of a cardiac event. So getting a flu shot is a particularly good idea if you have underlying heart disease or risk factors for heart disease.

Although flu symptoms for a woman with heart disease may not differ in severity from those without the condition, the ability to fight off the flu might be weaker. In addition, the stress of the flu (fever, dehydration, faster heart rate, immune activation) might provoke, expose and possibly worsen an underlying heart condition in women who may not realize a condition is present.

Any woman with questions about heart disease, flu symptoms or vaccination is encouraged to see her doctor as soon as possible.

More heart health tips for women

Take care of your heart — on a budget
Characteristics of a heart-healthy diet
Lifestyle changes for a healthier heart