With the flu season in full swing in New Jersey, comes an increased risk of heart attacks.

A study by researchers at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences and Public Health Ontario found chances of a heart attack increased sixfold during the week after a confirmed case of the flu. It also found a less severe increase linked to other respiratory infections.

The study found the risk could be higher for older adults, for patients with influenza B and for people experiencing their first heat attacks.

Dr. Barry Cohen, a cardiologist and medical director of the Cardiac Catherization Lab at Morristown Medical Center, said people often question whether it's really the flu causing the heart attack or the medicines being taken.  Cohen said people who take anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen are more at risk of having a heart attack compared to those people not taking the meds.

"People with the flu can get an inflammation of the heart muscle and it's not a heart attack, but an inflammation that can mimic a heart attack with chest pain, some EKG changes and some blood tests that suggest a heart attack," said Cohen. These people need to be treated with medications promptly in a hospital setting.

The flu is also a major concern for people with diabetes because diabetes is one of the major risk factors of heart disease. Cohen said diabetics with the flu are often hospitalized. They can get rare episodes of sudden death, bronchitis, pneumonia, sinus infections and ear infections. He said it's important that diabetics who have the flu be treated with a high level of vigilance and concern.

Diabetics with the flu respond to the illness like someone with a weakened immune system. Sugars can often become elevated when diabetics have the flu due to the cortisol that's released just from the stress of the infection.

Cohen also stressed that the flu is especially dangerous for diabetics on insulin. If they are nauseous and vomiting and can't keep any liquids or food down, the insulin will drive down the blood sugars to dangerously low levels. He said these patients need to be hydrated with intravenous fluids in a hospital setting.

What is alarming is that while all adults with the flu have a higher than normal heart attack risk, one third of people with heart disease don't get vaccinated for the flu, said Cohen. He strongly recommends, except for people at risk for problems with the flu vaccine, to be vaccinated annually.

To lower one's risk of heart disease, Cohen suggests sticking to a heart-healthy diet complete with lots of fruits and vegetables and low carbs. Avoid excess salt, exercise often and quit smoking.

If someone has heart disease or diabetes, the best way to avoid getting the flu is to wash hands thoroughly, wear face masks and treat fevers, aches and pains with the proper medication provided by a doctor.

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