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Just a Cold?

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Common Illness and Heart Disease

When you have heart disease, routine illnesses can be anything but routine. The “common cold” (and some popular over-the-counter treatments for its symptoms) come with special risks, and “the flu” (or influenza) can quickly become life-threatening. The best way to help yourself avoid these situations is to take all available measures to prevent them from happening in the first place – and learn what to do in case you do get cold or flu.

Not All Cold Medicines Were Created Equal

It’s easy to look at the rows of cough and cold medicines in your local pharmacy aisle and say, “I’ll just get this one – they’re all the same anyway.” Actually, they’re not. Even though you may not have seen your doctor or received a prescription for your cold, you should still speak with the pharmacist, especially if you have high blood pressure (HBP, also known as hypertension). It affects around 34% of adults over the age of 20 in the US, but less than half of those patients successfully control their blood pressure – and they should avoid the active ingredients in many cold medicines.1 There are medicines that are safe to take for your cold symptoms even with HBP, and your pharmacist can steer you towards these.1 This is especially important when it comes to nasal decongestants, antihistamines, and multi-symptom relief products.1

When Is the Flu Not Just the Flu?

When you have heart disease or have had a stroke, studies have shown you’re at a higher risk of developing potentially serious complications from the flu and need to take steps to fight it. In this context, “heart disease” can mean a heart attack, acute coronary syndrome, angina (chest pain related to heart problems), coronary artery disease, heart failure, hypertension, pulmonary heart disease, heart valve disorders, arrhythmias including atrial fibrillation, and congenital heart defects.2 The flu is no fun for anyone who gets it, but it doesn’t normally send people to the hospital. However, among adults hospitalized with the flu during the 2015-2016 influenza season, 41% had heart disease.2

The Best Defense Is a Good Offense

Prevent the flu before it can make you sick in the first place. Get a flu vaccine. Vaccination is the first and most important step in protecting against the flu. Flu vaccines are offered in many places, including doctors’ offices, clinics, health departments, pharmacies, college health centers and even some employers.2 Flu shots can be given to people with heart disease and other health conditions, and have even been associated with lower rates of some cardiac events among people with heart disease.2

It’s also important to take common sense precautions. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing and throw the tissue away after using it; wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after coughing or sneezing; Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth (germs are spread that way); and stay home when you are sick, except to get medical care.2 These everyday preventive actions can protect you from getting sick and, if you are sick, can help protect others from catching your illness.2


  1. http://www.pharmacytimes.com/publications/issue/2017/september2017/r861_september2017. Accessed November 16, 2017.
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/highrisk/heartdisease.htm. Accessed November 16, 2017.

Daniel Edmundowicz, MS, MD, FACP, FACC

Dr. Edmundowicz is the Medical Director of the Temple Heart and Vascular Institute and has a special interest in cardiovascular disease prevention. He is national authority on the applications of atherosclerosis imaging to cardiovascular disease prevention and risk factor modification. He has lectured widely and published more than 80 peer-reviewed articles. He leads public health and epidemiologic studies and participates in multi-center clinical trials. Dr. Edmundowicz is a Fellow of the American College of Cardiology and past president of the ACC’s Pennsylvania Chapter. He is also a member of the American Heart Association and National Lipid Association.

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