A new study has found a link between the flu and an increased heart attack risk, according to NPR. Doctors already knew the flu is serious and can turn life-threatening — 30 children have died from the condition in the U.S. since October, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — but this new research shows that it may be even more dangerous than we originally thought. According to the study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, respiratory infections like the flu put people at a higher risk for heart attacks.
"We found that you're six times more likely to have a heart attack during the week after being diagnosed with influenza, compared to the year before or after the infection," lead study author Dr. Jeff Kwong tells NPR. Kwong's team analyzed 364 heart attack hospitalizations during the course of the study, and 20 of those patients had a heart attack in the seven days following a flu diagnosis — in a random seven-day span, the average was three patients. The study authors suggest that the flu exacerbates conditions that make heart attacks more likely. "There's inflammation going on, and your body is under a lot of stress" when you have the flu, Kwong told NPR. Kwong tells NPR that many of the patients who had heart attacks after a flu diagnosis were over 65 years old and had other conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, so the chances of a healthy young adult having a heart attack because of the flu are low. But young people aren't immune from heart attacks — or the flu.
Men are more likely to have heart attacks, according to The American Heart Association, but about 435,000 women in the U.S. have heart attacks every year. If you're a millennial woman like me, a heart attack may sound like something more likely to affect your parents or grandparents, but we're still susceptible. Young women are at a higher risk for heart attacks if they don't exercise regularly, according to TODAY. The risk is also higher if you're Black, Native American, Mexican-American, or native Hawaiian, or if you have a parent with heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.
Young women are also frequently diagnosed with spontaneous coronary artery dissection, commonly called SCAD. SCAD begins when there's a tear in an artery, which blocks blood flow to the heart and leads to a heart attack, according to WebMD. The condition almost exclusively affects women, and it causes 40 percent of heart attacks in women under 50. It's important to recognize the early signs of a heart attack so you get treatment as soon as you can. If you feel chest pain or tightness, shortness of breath, back or jaw pain and dizziness, it could be a sign that you need to get to a hospital ASAP, per WebMD. Because heart attacks are often deadly, you have to take the symptoms seriously and move quickly.
Even though the chances of a young person developing a heart attack after getting the flu are low, you should still do everything you can to avoid the illness. The CDC says to get a flu shot, wash your hands often and avoid spending time with people who have the flu. In Kwong's NPR interview, he echoed the CDC's recommendations. "If we can reduce the risk of influenza infection, then we should reduce the risk of heart attacks," he told the news organization. Now that we know that influenza and heart attacks are linked, getting a flu shot and taking preventative measures is even more relevant. You may not experience any serious flu complications, but if you expose an older person to the illness, they could be in danger. If you've been putting off your flu shot, now's the time to get it. It could save a life.