Flu and pneumonia pose special problems for heart patients.
In fact, the flu can cause complications, including bacterial pneumonia, or the worsening of chronic heart problems.
Pneumonia is a lung infection that prevents your lungs from getting enough oxygen into the blood, creating a strain on the heart. It can also increase risks for stroke patients.
“It’s more stress on your heart. It has to work harder to pump blood through your lungs,” said Donna Arnett, Ph.D., chair and professor of epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and a past president of the American Heart Association.
Because of potential complications, which can sometimes lead to death when a patient is already sick, it becomes even more important to avoid the flu if you have heart disease and as you get older, Dr. Arnett said.
Flu Season Starts in the Fall
Flu season begins in October and typically runs until early to mid-spring. Though many people confuse colds and upper-respiratory infections with the flu, when you have the real flu its symptoms are usually more severe, Dr. Arnett said.
The flu can strike suddenly and can cause fever, chills, cough, sore throat, a runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue. Vomiting and diarrhea associated with the flu is more common in children.
A yearly flu shot can help guard against the contagious illness, which is caused by influenza viruses. Flu vaccines are created to combat the strains of flu expected to be circulating in a given year.
Heart and stroke patients should also be immunized against pneumonia unless they’ve experienced a bad reaction or allergy to the vaccine, Dr. Arnett said. Re-vaccination should be discussed with your doctor and will, depend on the person’s age, the type of vaccine used, and prior vaccination history.
A scientific advisory by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology has recommended an annual flu vaccine in injection form for cardiovascular disease patients “with coronary and other atherosclerotic vascular disease”.
“It’s a very safe vaccine,” Dr. Arnett said, adding that adverse reactions are rare. Occasionally there is soreness in the spot where the shot is given.
People develop some immunity to the flu a week after getting vaccinated, though two weeks is when immunity is most likely to kick in for the majority of people, and at four weeks the response to the vaccine generally peaks. You can get the flu vaccine in September before flu season hits and even months into the season.
Basic Preventive Steps
There are other precautions you can take to avoid the flu. “It’s important to stay away from people who are sick. It seems like an obvious thing, but I think it’s one we forget about,” Dr. Arnett said.
If you haven’t been vaccinated, stay out of crowds, particularly if the flu is spreading through your community, she said. Washing hands frequently is also a good practice, along with keeping your hands away from your face.
If you do suspect you’ve been stricken with the flu, get to your physician early, Dr. Arnett said. If it’s confirmed that your illness is the flu, an oral antiviral treatment can help reduce the duration of the sickness.
But prevention remains the best bet.
“It’s very important to be vaccinated,” she said. “It’s important to protect yourself.”
This content was last reviewed July 2015.