Here’s How the Flu Can Lead to Serious Heart Problems

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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Dr. Russo notes that heart-related health issues like hypertension and atherosclerosis (thickening or hardening of the arteries) sometimes start quietly developing in your 20s. Because that can sometimes happen without your feeling or showing any obvious symptoms, plenty of people go about their day-to-day lives without even knowing something is off, Dr. Russo says. This suggests that the actual rates of heart health issues in younger folks are likely higher than the official stats…and that more people ultimately face a higher risk of heart complications with the flu than they might even know.

As if that’s not troubling enough, having a heart issue (whether you’ve been diagnosed with one or not) can become life-threatening, should the flu hit you hard. “When you have a heart that’s compromised to a degree, or is only marginally supported, the stress and inflammation of an infection like the flu can basically push your heart over the edge, leading to a heart attack or an abnormal heart rhythm that could potentially be fatal,” Dr. Russo explains.

Other health conditions—such as diabetes, kidney disease, a history of stroke, or a compromised immune system—can increase your risk of heart complications related to the flu, adds Dr. Jean. Otherwise, lifestyle factors like smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, and what you eat can also up your chance of flu-related cardiac trouble, both experts say. Usually, if you’re under 65 and otherwise healthy, you should only experience a mild case and recover just fine.

Here’s when the flu poses the biggest risk to your heart—and the symptoms you should pay attention to.

The risk of developing heart complications related to the flu is highest if you have a serious case that requires hospitalization: A 2020 study found that about 12% of adults hospitalized for the flu develop a serious and sudden heart complication, such as acute heart failure (in which the heart’s blood-pumping ability is significantly weakened) and acute ischemic heart disease (which reduces blood flow to the heart because of narrowed arteries). In the study, those at particular risk included older individuals and those with underlying heart disease.

The risk of heart issues lingers even after you recover from your initial string of symptoms. “In the weeks following influenza infection, it’s still possible that you could have a cardiac complication, probably from ongoing inflammation that hasn’t completely resolved,” explains Dr. Russo.

If you’re sick with the flu right now or newly on the mend, the experts SELF spoke with recommend knowing what symptoms are commonly associated with cardiac emergencies, including heart failure, heart attack, and stroke, in case you need to seek immediate care.

“Chest discomfort, pain in the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach, shortness of breath, nausea, cold sweats, and lightheadedness can all indicate a heart attack” or other cardiac events, says Dr. Jean, and “drooping of the face, arm weakness, and speech difficulty can signal a stroke.”

Don’t just assume these symptoms will pass on their own, or that they’re not serious, Dr. Russo urges. He always recommends getting checked out if you have persistent chest pain or pressure or difficulty breathing either when you’re sick or after the rest of your flu symptoms alleviate—either could signal trouble for your heart or another serious complication from the flu. In those cases, heading to the ER is your best move, Dr. Russo says.

How to protect your heart throughout flu season

Whether you’ve had a run-in with the flu or not this winter, checking all the usual boxes to protect your health, in general, will help keep your immune system strong and minimize your risk of potential heart complications should you get sick: Think things like eating well and getting enough sleep (eight hours a night is the goal), according to Dr. Russo. As ever, wash your hands thoroughly and do your best to stay away from others who are or might be sick.

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