Last Modified: Sunday, January 20, 2013 6:43 PM
With more than 40 states, including Louisiana, reporting widespread flu activity, the end is not near. The flu season is just beginning to peak and is expected to continue through March.
The flu can cause additional strain on the heart, and flu deaths are more common among people with heart disease. The risk of dying from a heart attack increases by as much as a third during flu outbreaks, according to research by the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
“Because people get the flu every year, we tend to think of it as a bad cold, but it can be a potentially life-threatening condition for people who aren’t in optimum health,” said Dr. John Winterton, cardiologist with the Heart & Vascular Center and West Calcasieu Cameron Hospital.
The flu can strike suddenly. Its symptoms usually include fever, chills, cough, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, sore throat, headaches and fatigue, Winterton said. The flu virus can put the heart at risk because of the inflammation.
“As the body’s immune system fights off the inflammation, it increases blood flow to the affected area, delivering specialized cells to combat the threat. The blood vessels expand and contract to accommodate the increase in activity. This can cause previous stable plaque in artery walls to rupture, resulting in a blood clot and heart attack,” he said.
If you have heart disease, you’re at increased risk of complications from the flu, including pneumonia, dehydration and respiratory failure, he said.
“This shouldn’t cause panic among those with heart disease, if they should catch the flu, but it hopefully explains the seriousness of having the flu if you also have heart disease,” he said. “The best thing you can do is to try to avoid getting the flu in the first place. Focus on prevention.”
If you haven’t gotten a flu shot yet, Winterton said it’s not too late. They are still available at many locations.
“Once the flu shot is given, it usually takes a week or two for the immunity boost to kick in; while you’re not completely immune to the flu, you’re much less likely to get it. If you do get the flu, it is usually a mild case of it,” he said.
In addition to the flu shot, staying away from people who have the flu will lessen your exposure.
“It’ seems obvious but this point bears repeating: avoid people who are sick and if you are sick, stay home,” he said.
Washing your hands frequently is a good practice, as well as keeping your hands away from your face, he said. Because the flu can be serious and even deadly for those with heart disease, Winterton said to talk with your doctor about any flu shot or health concerns.