Had the Flu or Pneumonia? Watch Out for Your Heart

As if suffering symptoms of a respiratory infection such as a cold, the flu, bronchitis, or pneumonia isn't miserable enough, new findings suggest it could spell trouble for your heart.

It’s time to add the flu, pneumonia, and respiratory infections in general to the list of surprising heart attack risks. A study from scientists at the University of Sydney, published in the journal Internal Medicine Journal, found that respiratory infections can trigger myocardial infarction (MI), the scientific name for a heart attack.

The study’s population was 578 patients hospitalized for an MI that was confirmed via angiogram. Each patient was interviewed within four days after being hospitalized to determine whether he or she had recently suffered from respiratory infection symptoms. Patients were also assessed for how often they suffered from respiratory infections during the prior year. If an MI patient had suffered a cold or flu or some version thereof prior to the onset of the MI, then the timing of the respiratory illness was compared with the frequency of respiratory illnesses during the whole prior year. Once analyzed, the data revealed that 17 percent of the MI patients reported having had the onset of a cold, flu, or other respiratory infection within a week prior to the MI. Twenty-one percent reported having had a respiratory infection between 7 and 35 days prior to the MI.

“These findings confirm that respiratory infection can trigger MI,” the researchers conclude, based on the data. What’s even more concerning: “The increased risk of a heart attack isn’t necessarily just at the beginning of respiratory symptoms—it peaks in the first seven days and gradually reduces but remains elevated for [another] month,” explains senior author Professor Geoffrey H. Toffler of the Sydney Medical School at the University of Sydney and the Cardiology Department at the Royal North Shore Hospital, both in New South Wales, Australia.

For those readers who remember our story on the connection between heart attacks and taking certain pain medication, this new study out of the University of Sydney may raise some interesting questions. That previous study, published in Oxford University’s Journal of Infectious Disease, found that “taking NSAIDs (Non Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) for a cold could increase the likelihood of a heart attack.” NSAIDs include aspirin and ibuprofen (such as Motrin and Advil). However, that study looked solely at patients who took NSAIDs for respiratory infections. As such, it is possible that what raised their risk of heart attack was not the painkiller but the underlying infection.

Ideally, further research will clarify whether the bigger heart risk is the infection or the medication (or both), just as further research is needed, according to the authors of the Sydney study to identify and improve treatment strategies, “particularly in individuals who may have increased susceptibility.”

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