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Senior Citizen's Guide to Southwest Ohio

Heart Disease and the Flu

Tis the season – for flu, as we hear on the news and read in the paper. Each year there are over 200,000 hospitalizations and more than 30,000 deaths related to the flu. Individuals with heart disease are at even greater risk of developing complications from the influenza virus. Infection with the flu leads to an inflammatory reaction throughout the body that is an extra stress and potential problem for those with high blood pressure, heart failure, and cardiomyopathy. It also makes atherosclerotic plaques in coronary arteries more vulnerable to rupture and thrombosis, leading to nearly double the rate of heart attacks in the weeks surrounding infection.

This year extra concern surrounds the H1N1 (2009) strain, which has already shown itself to be dangerous to even healthy adults. While the H1N1 strain is still a form of the influenza virus, it is one that our bodies have not encountered before and against which our bodies have not developed immunity. Furthermore, the seasonal flu vaccine is generated early each year to fight again the three strains of the flu that are expected to be most prevalent come that fall and winter. This year, the threat from H1N1 came too late for inclusion in the seasonal flu vaccine; therefore a separate vaccine has been created. That means two flu shots are recommended this year – one to protect against H1N1, and the seasonal flu vaccine to protect against the other flu strains expected this year. Each of the two vaccines is available in two different forms: an injection (killed virus), and a nasal spray (live attenuated virus). Only healthy older children and healthy adults up to age 50 should take the nasal spray vaccines, because they contains live attenuated (partially killed) virus and can actually cause a mild flu syndrome in at risk patients. Younger children, pregnant women, adults over age 50, and anyone with serious medical problems including heart disease should receive only the injected form of the flu vaccines. Getting the vaccine is safe for anyone without a previous reaction or allergy to eggs, and it can lower the risk of heart attack and stroke by as much as 25%, which is better than some of the medicines we use!

Your best defense against the flu is to avoid getting exposed in the first place. Of course, stay away from anyone coughing or sneezing. But remember, infected individuals can start spreading the virus a full day before they even develop symptoms or know that they are infected and can continue to do so for five to seven days after becoming sick. So always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water and dry them completely, especially around rings and under your nails. Then use the paper towels to turn off the water faucet and open the bathroom door. Use alcohol hand sanitizer whenever soap and water are not readily available. If you are sneezing or coughing, do so into your arm instead of your hands to limiting spreading the germs with your hands.

Symptoms of the flu include:

More severe symptoms can include shortness of breath, a cough productive of yellow/green mucous, nausea and vomiting, shaking chills, and chest pain. Anyone with heart disease who develops these symptoms should call his or her doctor right away and may even need to be seen and evaluated. Over-the-counter flu treatments that contain decongestants, which can raise blood pressure, should not be used by those with heart disease. Decongestant-free formulations are available and can be recommended by your doctor or pharmacist. Prescription anti-viral medication may be needed for those who test positive for the virus. Please consult your doctor with any questions you have about the flu, the vaccines, or your symptoms. Taking the proper precautions can help you stay healthy.

The flu season runs through the spring and it's not too late to get vaccinated!

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