Have you gotten that vaccine that reduces your risk of heart attack or stroke? Haven’t heard about it? Here are some facts. In the first two weeks after this vaccine, those who got exposed to an infection compared to those who got the vaccine had five times the rate of a first heart attack and three times the rate of a first stroke. This benefit gradually decreases in the three months following the vaccination, but still shows reduced risk by 16 to 23 percent for heart attack or stroke months later. I came across this amazing information at a recent Texas Academy of Family Medicine educational session last week.

Let’s line up for this new vaccine right away, you might be thinking. Surprisingly, this isn’t a new vaccine at all. It is the flu shot!

Hmm, I thought the flu shot was to help prevent getting the influenza? True, but evidence shows it does much more than that. The inflammation and damage to blood vessel walls caused by an attack of influenza leads to increased risk of blood clots leading to stroke or heart attack. It also can bring on a heart attack by causing tachycardia, hypoxia, acute inflammation, cytokine release, vasoconstriction, effects on receptors, and coronary plaque disruption.

People with the greatest risk of complications and death from influenza are the very old and the very young. Older adults may not show typical signs of flu like fever, headache, and runny nose leading to delayed recognition and treatment.

Also at increased risk are those with underlying medical conditions such as COPD, asthma, heart failure, diabetes, obesity, blood, endocrine, liver and metabolic disorders or those with neurological or developmental disorders. Pregnant women and children are disproportionately at risk for complications of flu.

Besides heart attack and stroke, there is increased risk for hospitalization for pneumonia and other complications. In the frail elderly and nursing home patients, the flu often leads to a decrease in functional activities of daily living like dressing, feeding, toileting, mobility and self-care.

So, don’t let the myths about this important vaccine prevent you from getting it. I often hear worn and scientifically unvalidated claims like, “I got the flu from the flu shot” (not possible as it is an inactivated virus vaccine). “I’m allergic to eggs” (there are options and protocols around this). “I am not sure the vaccine is effective” (even if there is a drift in the antigens produced by the flu virus, a protective effect exists). “I don’t like needles” (how about nasal administration, or what about that IV you will get during your hospitalization from complications?).

So get your flu shot annually. It is not only good for your health, but the rest of us around you in the human herd. One unvaccinated person can spread the virus around to a whole family or community if they are exposed.

I recommend you call your doctor, go to the pharmacy, see your public health department, or employee health nurse to get your flu shot. The flu season is upon us.

Next week, we’ll return to the topic of sleep disorders.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.

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