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, that was published in the Internal Medicine Journal, found that respiratory infections can trigger myocardial infarction (MI), aka 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 Geoffrey H. Tofler, professor of medicine at The University of Sydney Northern Clinical School in New South Wales, Australia.

There’s also an interesting connection between heart attacks and common pain medication. And this 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 was associated with 3.4-times greater odds of having a heart attack compared to a 2.7 times higher risk of heart attack for those suffering from a respiratory infection who weren’t popping NSAIDs. 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’s possible that what raised their risk of heart attack was not the painkiller but the underlying infection. Here’s what you need to know about NSAIDs and heart attack risk.

Ideally, further research will clarify whether the bigger heart risk is the infection or the medication (or both). For now, follow these 13 dos and don’ts for getting rid of a cold fast.

  • Internal Medicine Journal: "Triggering of acute myocardial infarction by respiratory infection”
  • Geoffrey H. Tofler, professor of medicine at The University of Sydney Northern Clinical School in New South Wales, Australia
  • The Journal of Infectious Diseases: "Acute Respiratory Infection and Use of Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs on Risk of Acute Myocardial Infarction: A Nationwide Case-Crossover Study"

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers health, fitness, yoga, and lifestyle, among other topics. An author of crime fiction, Lauren's book The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.