With few exceptions, health experts recommend that everyone—from 6-month-old babies to adults in their 60s and beyond—get a flu shot every fall. Vaccination can help prevent or reduce the severity of the disease by reducing the chance of serious complications, such as hospitalization, respiratory failure, pneumonia, or heart attack.
The advice for an annual flu shot is especially important for anyone at high risk of cardiovascular problems. “This includes people over age 65, as well as those with a history of heart disease, stroke, or cardiovascular risk factors such as smoking and diabetes,” says Eduardo Sanchez, MD, MPH, chief medical officer for prevention at the American Heart Association.
However, people in this high-risk group often miss their annual flu shot. If this applies to you, it’s important to understand how the flu vaccine can protect your health. It might even save your life.
Why the flu vaccine is important for heart health
Research shows that after being diagnosed with the flu, a person is six times more likely to have a heart attack (when blood flow to the heart is blocked) in the following week. According to the Cleveland Clinic, heart health is especially vulnerable during the flu due to a cascade of events triggered by the inflammation caused by the infection.
Inflammation increases blood pressure, which puts strain on the heart. Under this stress, plaque—a waxy substance that builds up in arteries—becomes weak and can break off, forming clots that can block arteries and lead to a heart attack.
There is evidence that vaccination can help reduce the risk of heart problems due to the flu. For example, in July 2020, research presented at an American Heart Association conference revealed that getting a flu shot reduces the risk of heart complications from the flu, including heart attack, cardiac arrest (when the heart suddenly stops beating), transient ischemic attack (TIA ) ), and even death.
Similarly, a meta-analysis published in 2022 c JAMA Network Open found that the benefits of the flu shot were especially great for people who had recently had a heart attack, reducing the risk of a second heart attack by 45 percent.
Getting the most out of your flu shot
Flu vaccines are considered safe for most people, including people with heart disease. Some things to keep in mind when making vaccine plans:
Timing is everything. The flu season begins to intensify in the fall and peaks between December and February. It takes several weeks after vaccination to build up immunity, so it’s ideal to get a flu shot beforehand. An easy way to think about this, Dr. Sanchez says, is to make Halloween — October 31 — your deadline.
Better late than never. Even if you miss this deadline, try anyway. Flu season can last until late spring, so getting vaccinated in November or even later can help protect you from the virus. In fact, Sanchez says, if you happen to get the flu early in the season, it’s not too late to get vaccinated to prevent a second bout of the flu.
Make sure you are healthy. “A runny nose or sore throat shouldn’t stop you from getting a flu shot,” says Sanchez. However, if you have a fever, it’s best to wait because a high fever means your immune system is focused on fighting the infection, according to the Cleveland Clinic. And if you’ve tested positive for COVID-19, you should wait until your quarantine period is over and severe symptoms have passed, Sanchez adds.
Be picky if possible. All flu vaccines are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, even those available at your local supermarket pharmacy or pop-up vaccination clinic, meaning they are safe and effective. However, because older adults are at increased risk of serious flu complications, including heart-related ones, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that during the 2022-2023 flu season, people 65 and older get a high dose flu vaccine (there is only one on the market) or an adjuvanted one that has ingredients added to help boost the immune response. If neither is available, get the flu shot that is: it will still provide plenty of protection.
Keep up with other vaccines. If you haven’t received a COVID-19 shot or need a booster, it’s perfectly fine to roll up both sleeves at the same time as your flu shot. Check with your doctor to find out if you also need a pneumococcal vaccine. Pneumonia is a common complication of the flu.