By Dr. Stacey Malinowski
Assistant Dean, School of Health Sciences
With February being American Heart Month, let’s take a moment to talk about the connection between your heart and COVID-19. You may have heard that certain cardiovascular diseases may put you at higher risk for severe COVID-19. But did you know that if you get COVID-19, even a mild case, it could cause permanent damage to your heart?
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COVID-19 and the Risk for Severe Illness
As we learn more about COVID-19, we have seen more and more medical conditions added to the list that have been proven to put people at a higher risk for severe illness if they are infected with COVID-19. Some of these severe illnesses include cancer, chronic kidney disease, obesity, pregnancy and Down’s Syndrome.
There are also several that are related directly to your heart, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, cardiomyopathies, and pulmonary hypertension. Having high blood pressure could increase your chance for severe illness as well.
Take Precautions to Minimize Your Exposure to COVID-19
If you are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, here’s what you can do to minimize your chances for exposure:
- Practice social distancing and avoid large gatherings.
- Wear a mask or protective face covering.
- Practice good hand hygiene.
- Delay or cancel visits if you or your visitors have been exposed to anyone with COVID-19 within the last 14 days or if anyone has symptoms.
- Limit contact with shared items and commonly touched surfaces.
- Adhere to your normal medicine regimen.
- Ensure that you have at least a 30-day supply of your medications.
- Do not delay routine medical care for chronic conditions; see if your doctor can do a telemedicine visit instead of you going to the office.
- Talk to your doctor or healthcare provider about receiving the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible.
- Seek medical assistance for health emergencies.
Cardiovascular Effects After COVID-19
At the time of this writing, over 24.6 million Americans and over 96.2 million people globally have contracted COVID-19. And while most people recover, researchers are finding that there are long-lasting effects on the body, including the heart, even with mild disease.
While older individuals and those with serious chronic medical conditions may be more prone to experiencing continued cardiovascular symptoms after their recovery, it can happen to anyone. COVID-19 may cause long-lasting damage to the heart muscle.
As a muscle, the heart is a pump. If the muscle is damaged, it cannot have enough strength to adequately circulate blood through the circulatory system and out to all of the vital organs. This weakness of the heart may lead to a condition known as heart failure.
COVID-19 also may also make your blood more likely to clot. These clots can be small or large and can lead to a blockage of the small blood vessels in your heart. Also, they may lead to a larger clot causing a large blockage, which may lead to either a heart attack or even a stroke.
Inflammation from COVID-19 May Cause Myocarditis
Inflammation left behind by COVID-19 may cause myocarditis (an inflammation of the heart muscle), which can lead to chest pain, shortness of breath or even an irregular heartbeat. Any resulting damage could lead to prolonged symptoms, a decreased quality of life or in worst-case scenarios, even death from cardiac dysfunction. One study found that three out of four people with COVID-19 had heart abnormalities after recovery.
See a Doctor If You’re Still Having Symptoms after COVID-19 Recovery
So how do you know when you should see your doctor after you recover from COVID-19? If you are experiencing any persistent shortness of breath, chest pain or difficulty breathing, you should always seek medical attention. You should also see a healthcare provider if you experience any heart palpitations or feel like your heart is racing or skipping beats.
If you begin to experience swelling of your legs, either both or just on one, this could be a symptom of heart failure or that a blood clot has formed. You should seek medical attention for this condition as well.
Don’t Overdo Your Workouts After COVID-19
If you are planning on resuming your pre-COVID-19 levels of activity, consider starting slow and gradually increasing your activity level to see how you feel. After a period of downtime, your body will need to recover and you will need to regain the strength you had prior to COVID-19. If you are an athlete, it is very important to consider following up with your doctor to get medically cleared before engaging in high-intensity training if you experienced even mild symptoms.