Now that the swine flu pandemic is officially behind us, according to the World Health Organization, this flu season is gearing up to be much less dramatic than last year's. But that's no less reason to skip out on getting the seasonal flu vaccine, particularly if you're at risk for heart problems. Doctors have long noticed that heart attacks spike during the winter, and while that may be due in part to all that snow you have to shovel, it's more likely because of the flu.
"Flu is thought to cause an inflammatory process in the blood vessels, particularly in those people who have narrowing of the arteries due to coronary heart disease," says Niroshan Siriwardena, MBBS, PhD, professor of primary and prehospital health care at the University of Lincoln in the U.K. and the author of a new study linking flu vaccinations to a significantly decreased risk of heart attacks. Plaques in the arteries are more likely to rupture when someone contracts the flu, he adds, and that could trigger a heart attack.
The details: In his study, which was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Dr. Siriwardena collected information on 78,706 patients, 16,012 of whom had had heart attacks at some point over a six-year period; the remaining 62,694 were randomly selected from a British medical database. Flu-vaccination rates were roughly the same in both the heart attack group and the randomly selected group, hovering around 51 percent. But in both groups, getting a flu vaccination was associated with a 19 percent drop in the risk of having a heart attack; there was no drop in risk for people who reported receiving a pneumonia vaccine.
The authors also found that when people received the vaccine made a big difference in their risk. People who got the vaccine early in the flu season (usually around September and October) saw a 21 percent reduction in their heart attack risk, while those who got it around November saw just a 12 percent drop in risk.
What it means: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended for some time that anyone with heart complications get the flu vaccine, and a scientific analysis published last year in The Lancet showed that multiple studies have found a correlation between flu vaccinations and reduced risk of various heart problems. "This study does not prove that influenza vaccination was the cause of lower heart attacks," says Dr. Siriwardena. "Nevertheless, it adds to the evidence for a potential link." And, he adds, "people who are vaccinated early might be protected from flu that is circulating earlier in the season, thereby further reducing the risk of an influenza-related heart attack."
Because swine flu, or H1N1, isn't as big a problem this year, the flu vaccination recommendations have changed. Here's what you need to know:
Only one shot is needed this season. As you may recall, adults who wanted both swine-flu and seasonal-flu protection last year needed two shots. But this year just one will suffice to protect you from both.
Get shots, not sprays. Some forms of the flu vaccine are administered via a nasal spray, but the American Heart Association suggests sticking with flu shots. The nasal spray vaccine contains a live virus that has not been approved for use in heart disease patients.
Stay healthy in other ways. While adults at risk for heart disease should always get flu shots, they can further boost their immunity with basic healthy-living advice, such as eating lots of fruits and vegetables and getting adequate vitamin D, which strengthens your immune system. And in the event that you do fall ill, stock up on herbal remedies like ginseng and black elderberry.