Good health

Expert highlights the potentially serious complications of influenza

May 01, 2022
Did you know that some people are more likely to experience severe complications from the flu? Image source: Getty

Influenza is nothing to sneeze about, with the virus already circulating in our communities as borders reopen and social distancing measures are relaxed.

With so much focus on COVID-19, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of influenza – another serious respiratory disease which can cause a range of short-and long-term complications.

While most people will recover relatively quickly from a bout of influenza, others will develop serious complications that can have long-term implications.

We often associate influenza with pneumonia and while this is a well-known complication of the flu, research has shown that the body’s inflammatory response to influenza infection can cause other problems.

Studies show that heart attack and stroke can be complications of influenza. This is particularly important for older people and those with underlying health issues, as both groups are more susceptible to influenza complications.

Brisbane-based GP, Dr Sarah Chu says, “there is an undeniable connection between influenza and the heart and brain”.

“If you are living with a heart condition or have survived a stroke, you definitely don’t want to get influenza.  These are the patients I prioritise for a flu shot every year.”

Dr Chu explains the link between the flu and cardiovascular disease, and how you can protect yourself this winter.

How does the flu affect your heart and brain?

Unlike the common cold, the flu is a serious respiratory disease which causes an inflammatory response as your body fights the infection. An increase in inflammatory activity can lead to blood clots and a rise in blood pressure which can increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke.

While anyone can experience complications from the flu, people with existing cardiovascular problems are at higher risk of developing them. The flu can also worsen pre-existing conditions including diabetes, lung disease and asthma.

“Older people are 10 times more likely to have a heart attack in the days following a flu infection than at any other time,” explains Dr Chu.

“And if you already have coronary heart disease before catching the flu, your risk of dying from flu complications increases 10-fold compared to someone who doesn’t have this form of heart disease,” she said.

“Researchers found that having a flu-like illness increased the odds of having a stroke by nearly 40 percent over the next 15 days. This increased risk remained up to one year.”

Read more: The flu and you: What you need to know about the 2022 flu season

Vaccination in the lead up to winter is the best way to reduce the risk of influenza and its complications.

Dr Chu says that by taking precautions and preventive steps, you may be able to avoid the flu and associated complications.

Because the influenza virus is constantly mutating, an annual flu shot is the most simple and effective defence against infection. This is recommended for all Aussies over the age of 6 months and is particularly important if you are older or living with a health issue.

It’s important to know that there are several different influenza vaccines available this flu season, with some tailored to a person’s age and their risk of severe influenza.

Dr Chu says that since the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, many of her patients have wanted to discuss which vaccine is best suited to their circumstances.

“It’s the same with influenza. Your doctor or pharmacist can explain more about influenza prevention and the vaccine options that may suit you. It’s a conversation well worth having,” she said.

The Federal Government offers free flu vaccines for all Australians aged from 65 years, as well as those with risk factors such as cardiovascular disease.

Dr Chu advises that, “If you aren’t eligible for a government funded vaccine check your private health insurance policy for coverage of costs.”

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IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

Protecting yourself against flu in 2022

Experts fear this flu season may be more severe than the last two years. If you are over 60 and catch the flu, you’re at higher risk of serious complications or requiring hospital care. Find out more about flu prevention and the different vaccine choices available for people aged 60 plus.

Learn more

Were you aware of the link between the flu and your heart and brain?

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