I’m writing this from my deathbed. Well, okay, maybe not quite as close to death as I actually felt yesterday, but I have been really, really ill. After four feverish, sweaty, pain-wracked days in bed, sick as a dog, this morning I dragged myself into a steamy shower and felt almost human again. For a few minutes, anyway, until I collapsed in an exhausted heap in bed. At first, I was calling this affliction a cold, but it appears what I actually have is the flu (or influenza). Here’s what I’ve been learning about what happens when heart patients face these nasty bugs:
If you have heart disease, catching a cold or flu virus can lead to potentially severe health problems. While the virus itself isn’t usually serious, complications such as pneumonia – particularly for influenza – can make it hard to take in oxygen efficiently. This makes your heart work harder to pump oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. This extra demand on the heart can be important when a person diagnosed with heart disease catches a bad cold or flu.
Both influenza and the common cold are viral respiratory infections (they affect the nose, throat, and lungs).
There are three types of influenza viruses: A, B, and C. Type A influenza causes the most serious problems in humans. On the other hand, there are over 200 different known cold viruses, but most colds (30% to 40%) are caused by the rhinovirus.
Like me, many people confuse the flu with just a really, really bad cold. Here’s how to spot the differences:
Influenza: sudden onset, fever for 3-4 days, extreme exhaustion at the beginning, body aches and pain, headache, severe fatigue (up to 21 days), chest discomfort, dry cough, can lead to serious complications like pneumonia, can be fatal in high-risk patients.
Cold: gradual onset (“coming down with a cold”), sore throat, sneezing, mild/moderate chest discomfort and cough, nasal congestion, runny nose, mild fatigue, slight aches/pain, can lead to sinus congestion or earache.
According to Dr. Sheldon Sheps of Mayo Clinic, over-the-counter cold remedies containing decongestants can cause concern for heart patients who have high blood pressure. Decongestants relieve nasal stuffiness by narrowing blood vessels and reducing swelling in the nose. But this narrowing can affect other blood vessels as well, which can increase blood pressure.
To keep your blood pressure in check, avoid over-the-counter decongestants and multi-symptom cold remedies that contain decongestants — such as pseudoephedrine, ephedrine, phenylephrine, naphazoline and oxymetazoline.
- Choose a cold medication designed for people who have high blood pressure. Some cold medications, such as Coricidin HBP, don’t contain decongestants. However, these medications may contain other powerful drugs, like dextromethorphan (DXM), that can be dangerous if you take too much. Follow the dosing instructions carefully.
- Take a pain reliever. To relieve a fever, sore throat, headache or body aches, try aspirin or acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol).
- Try zinc acetate lozenges. A 2008 Wayne State University study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases reported: “Zinc acetate preparation was significantly effective in decreasing the average duration of cold symptoms with no observable side effects.“
- Use saline nasal spray. To relieve nasal congestion, try saline nasal spray. The spray can help flush your sinuses.
- Soothe your throat. To relieve a sore or scratchy throat, gargle with warm salt water or drink warm water with lemon juice and honey.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Water, juice, tea and soup can help clear your lungs of phlegm and mucus.* See Mary’s note in comments if you have heart failure
- Increase the humidity in your home. Use a cool-mist humidifier or vaporizer to moisten the air and ease congestion and coughing.
- Get plenty of rest. If you’re not feeling well, take it easy.
Most importantly, call your doctor if your signs and symptoms get worse instead of better, or last more than 10 days.