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Why Flu Shots Matter When You Have Heart Disease

Here’s an important stat that you’ve probably never heard: about half of adults hospitalized with the flu also have heart disease.

Yes, heart problems seriously raise your risk of flu complications — and some of those complications can be pretty severe — so the right preventive care is important. That includes a flu vaccine.

We spoke with Talal Moukabary, MD, a cardiologist at Banner - University Medicine in Arizona, about why flu vaccines are so important for people with heart disease. He explained the connection between heart disease and flu problems, the factors to consider when scheduling a flu vaccine and the ways to help protect others with heart disease.

Why does having heart disease make my flu risk worse?

According to Dr. Moukabary there are several potential flu complications related to heart disease including:

  • Pneumonia and respiratory failure
  • Heart failure
  • Heart attack

Each of these health conditions are pretty serious and can even lead to death, but why does your risk become so much higher with heart disease? Dr. Moukabary explained that when you get the flu, your body activates a few defensive responses, such as increased breathing rate and heart rate. “Patients with heart disease have less reserve and may not be able to mount an excellent defensive response,” he said.

In fact, evidence shows that for some people, the flu virus can also directly damage their heart muscle, Dr. Moukabary added. The risk of having a heart attack is also six times higher within a week of flu infection. And if that wasn’t enough to convince you, here’s another fact: Sudden, serious heart complications occur in approximately one out of every eight flu patients.

Bottom line: If you have heart problems, you should consider getting an annual flu vaccine to reduce the risk of complications.

What are my vaccine options?

It’s usually most effective (and recommended) to get your flu vaccine in September or October. However, you can even get it as late as January or February if need be.

Certain flu shots are approved for people as young as six months old. There are also high dose flu vaccines designed specifically for those ages 65 and older. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise that people with underlying health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, should discuss the use of the nasal spray live vaccine (LAIV4) with their health care provider. The CDC also provides this helpful resource outlining which vaccines are best for which groups of people.

There are certain conditions, such as severe egg allergies and Guillain-Barré syndrome, that might make a flu vaccine more risky. “In those rare situations, it is best to discuss your options with your physician to make a shared decision,” Dr. Moukabary advised.

Whatever your circumstance, a health care provider can provide you with more info if you aren’t sure what to do.

Getting vaccinated as a caretaker

Dr. Moukabary pointed out that when caretakers get sick with the flu, they run the risk of passing it on to the people they’re looking after. That’s why if you’re providing care to someone with heart issues, it’s especially important to get an influenza vaccine. You might be able to handle the flu just fine, but that might not be the case for your child, your sibling, your parent or your spouse. Do everything within your power to keep those you love safe.

If you or someone you’re looking after is suffering from severe flu symptoms and you need immediate care, visit a Banner Urgent Care near you. For a health care provider in your area, visit bannerhealth.com.

If you’d like to read more about heart issues, see these articles written with help from Banner Health experts.

Updates were made to this article on September 7, 2023. 

Heart Health Cold and Flu Immunizations