Colds and flu

Updated 15 February 2016

Flu shot may guard against irregular heartbeat

Vaccination is associated with a reduced number of cases of atrial fibrillation, but more research is needed.

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Along with reducing your flu risk, a flu shot may protect you from a common heart rhythm disorder that significantly increases stroke risk, researchers report.

Fivefold increased risk of stroke

Their study of about 57,000 people in Taiwan found a significant association between the flu and new cases of atrial fibrillation, a condition that causes an irregular and often abnormally fast heart rate. The condition has been linked to a fivefold increased risk of stroke, according to researchers. 

Read: What is flu?

Among people who had not received a flu shot, those who got the flu were 18 percent more likely to develop atrial fibrillation than those who did not get the flu. The risk among vaccinated people who got the flu was about the same as unvaccinated people who did not get the flu, the study authors said.

Flu vaccination was consistently associated with a lower risk of atrial fibrillation (AF) in different groups of patients, according to the study published online recently in the journal HeartRhythm

Read: Women may have better resistance against flu

"According to the findings presented here, the possibility of AF should be kept in mind when patients with influenza infection complain of palpitations or experience ischaemic stroke," lead investigators Dr Tze-Fan Chao and Dr Su-Jung Chen, of Taipei Veterans General Hospital, and colleagues wrote.

Potential public health benefits

"Influenza vaccination should be encouraged for patients, especially those who have a high risk of atrial fibrillation, to try to prevent the occurrence of atrial fibrillation and subsequent stroke. However, a further prospective study is necessary to confirm our findings," they added. 

Read: What is the role of influenza vaccines?

In an accompanying editorial, two cardiologists from Northwestern University in Chicago said the study suggests the flu vaccine has broader potential public health benefits.

"The results of this study beg the question as to whether the acute treatment of the influenza infection itself, or addressing the inflammatory response associated with infection, may help prevent secondary episodes of AF," Dr Nishant Verma and Dr Bradley Knight wrote. "Beyond the prospective trial mentioned by the authors, we look forward to future studies into these and other areas that may help confirm and validate the observed findings."

Read more: 

Could bananas cure the flu  

Symptoms of flu 

Treating flu 

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Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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