When you get a flu shot, it’s primarily viewed as a way to avoid getting the flu.
That’s an entirely true statement. It is also an incomplete one from a clinical perspective.
The influenza vaccination can also help you avoid potentially serious complications that can come from contracting the flu. With COVID-19 sharing the spotlight, so to speak, it’s even more important to do what you can in regard to preventable illness.
“The flu can hit people in ways they perhaps haven’t thought about,” said Dr. Wendell Hoffman, an infectious disease specialist at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
“You can tell someone to get the flu shot. But if you add, ‘Oh, and by the way, if you get the flu shot you can reduce the possibility of having a heart attack or a stroke,’ well, that tends to hit people in a way that maybe they hadn’t considered.”
Influenza can be a trigger
Seasonal influenza deserves more respect, in other words. It’s not “just the flu.” In reality, influenza can come with all kinds of serious ramifications, particularly if you’re over the age of 65 or living with a chronic health condition.
“The problem is that influenza causes systemic inflammatory reaction in the body that can affect multiple organ systems,” Dr. Hoffman said. “This includes the vascular system, which is where a lot of the most serious risks exist.”
Inflammation of this type can lead to clots and obstruction. This, in turn, can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
“I don’t think people are as aware as they should be about how serious of a trigger influenza can be,” Dr. Hoffman said. “I don’t think people have zeroed in on the fact that individual risk for these health threats is definitely higher with influenza. Our messaging surrounding the flu must change to reflect this.”
Influenza affects the young and the old, but tends to hit people harder if they have underlying illnesses. The most common conditions that put people at high risk for flu complications:
- age 65 or older
- a history of cardiovascular or pulmonary disease
- being treated for cancer
Vaccines help even those who still get the flu
There was a day when the belief was that the biggest danger for flu patients was that they’d develop bacterial pneumonia following this virus. It’s clear now, however, that it’s much broader than that.
While flu vaccines are not perfect, research has shown they decrease the severity of the flu for those who end up getting it anyway. By that measure, it also reduces the risk of flu-related hospitalization for people of all ages.
“It means the degree of how sick you get with the flu probably correlates with the degree of inflammation going on within your body,” Dr. Hoffman said. “Therefore, a vaccination will decrease the risk for cardiovascular precipitated events like heart attacks and strokes.”
Above all, do not let bad information get in the way of a good vaccine.
“Flu vaccines are safe and effective,” Dr. Hoffman stressed. “It is biologically impossible for the influenza vaccine to cause you the flu. And as more people get the vaccine, the more we can establish herd immunity against the seasonal strains. So by doing this we’re also helping protect those we live with and work with.”
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