The coronavirus pandemic impacted millions of people across the UK and, even today, it is still causing health issues through what’s known as long COVID.
Long COVID remains a relatively unknown condition that causes certain people to experience symptoms or health-related issues even after the initial COVID-19 infection has subsided.
While the impact of long COVID is still being researched, one recent study found that people who caught COVID-19 — including those who do and do not have long COVID — are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease.
This study, published in the European Society of Cardiology earlier this year, discovered that people who had had COVID-19 were at a higher risk of heart-related conditions like heart attacks, heart failure, deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and coronary heart disease.
Therefore, understanding the relationship between COVID-19 and heart health is vital. In this article, we take a closer look at the impact COVID-19 can have on your heart, while also highlighting why having regular heart check-ups can help.
The immediate impact of COVID-19 on heart health
COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, which means that it can cause acute cardiovascular symptoms. These symptoms can include:
- Decreased oxygen – viruses cause inflammation and fluid build-up in the lungs so less oxygen can enter the bloodstream. The heart then has to pump harder which can be dangerous for people with pre-existing heart conditions.
- Myocarditis – caused when the heart itself becomes inflamed due to the infection. Inflammation may also result due to the body’s immune response.
- Stress cardiomyopathy – a heart muscle disorder that impacts the heart’s ability to pump blood as effectively. When the body catches a virus, it becomes stressed and releases catecholamines — chemicals that impact the heart and reduce its ability to pump blood around the body.
Numerous studies have looked into the impact of COVID-19 on the heart.
During one study, researchers found that one in eight people hospitalised with COVID-19 were later diagnosed with myocarditis. This study also found that those who needed a ventilator or treatment in intensive care had a higher risk of developing myocarditis.
COVID-19 was originally believed to lead to myocarditis because of the virus attacking the heart cells. However, further research has shown that the damage is more likely to be caused as a result of the immune system overreacting to the virus.
COVID-19 can also impact the heart by causing inflammation or scarring of the lungs. As a result of this damage, the heart then has to pump harder to deliver blood to the lungs — putting extra strain on it.
COVID-19 can also cause blood vessels to become inflamed, increasing the risk of blood clots developing and leading to an increased likelihood of heart attack or stroke.
Severe heart complications
Some severe heart complications can also arise because of COVID-19. For instance, these might include:
- Cytokine storm – where the immune system attacks the virus so severely that it destroys healthy tissues as well, causing damage to the kidneys, liver and heart. A cytokine storm can result in heart damage that impacts its rhythm, leading to serious ventricular arrhythmias. It may also cause organ failure and can even be fatal.
- Type 2 heart attacks – a type of heart attack caused by the increased stress that COVID-19 puts on the heart. This can be due to clots which prevent oxygen from reaching other organs including the heart.
The long-term effects of COVID on the cardiovascular system
After recovering from COVID-19, some evidence appears to suggest that it can have long-term effects on the cardiovascular system.
For instance, some people may find that their heart rate changes after COVID-19 — either speeding up or slowing down, or experiencing shortness of breath, chest pain and palpitations.
One study also found that patients with COVID-19 had a higher risk of death due to cardiovascular-related conditions for at least 18 months after infection. Involving nearly 160,000 participants, this study showed that people who had COVID-19 were more likely to develop cardiovascular conditions that can last past the point of recovery.
This same study also found that people with COVID-19 were approximately four times as likely to develop major cardiovascular diseases like DVT, heart failure or coronary heart disease in the acute phase (during infection) and 40% more likely to develop them in the post-acute phase (after recovery).
Myocarditis and COVID-19
COVID-19-related-myocarditis is thought to be caused by a combination of viral injury to the heart and damage caused by the body’s immune response. During one study, researchers found that 5% of patients developed myocarditis within six months of catching the COVID-19 infection.
Myocarditis causes chest pain, shortness of breath and changes to the heart’s rhythm or beat. Treating it involves using medications to calm inflammation, and pain relief to ease chest pain. However, due to the added risk that it could progress to dilated cardiomyopathy and chronic heart failure, different types of treatment may also be recommended.
COVID-19 can have long-lasting consequences on the cardiovascular system. The most frequently reported heart problems after COVID-19 include:
- Chest discomfort/pain
- Inflammatory heart disease
Pre-existing heart conditions and COVID-19
Most people with COVID-19 make a full recovery without the need for medical intervention. However, for people with pre-existing heart conditions, the recovery process could result in severe complications.
Some of the common pre-existing heart conditions that can put people at a higher risk of COVID-19 complications include:
- Atrial fibrillation
- Coronary heart disease
- Previous heart attacks
- Heart failure
- Heart valve disease
Patients who have had recent heart surgery also have a higher risk of developing severe COVID-19 complications.
If you have a pre-existing heart condition and are concerned about catching COVID-19, then speak with your doctor and do your best to practice hand washing and social distancing when necessary.
Managing COVID-19 with a heart condition
If you have an existing heart condition and catch COVID-19, you will need to monitor your health to ensure your body isn’t developing severe complications. The best way to do this is to track any symptoms you experience and report any changes to the doctor right away.
It’s important to speak with a doctor if you already take medication for your heart condition and want to take over-the-counter medicines to alleviate COVID-19 symptoms.
Precautions and preventative measures
Taking every precaution possible can reduce the risk of catching COVID-19. This includes washing your hands regularly, testing after being in enclosed spaces with lots of people, wearing a mask when necessary and avoiding contact with infected people.
Maintaining a healthy heart is important too as it can reduce the risk of developing severe complications if you get infected with COVID-19. Therefore, make sure to attend regular heart check-ups and maintain a healthy lifestyle to keep your heart in the best possible condition.
Recovery and rehabilitation
After recovering from COVID-19, research suggests that there is an elevated risk of developing a heart condition. However, with early detection and intervention, these can be treated effectively.
One of the best ways to detect any new, developing heart conditions is by regularly having your heart looked at by a professional. They will then be able to perform particular assessments to check the overall health of your heart. These might include:
- Electrocardiogram (ECG) – a test that checks the rhythm, rate and electrical activity of the heart
- Computed tomography (CT) aorta – this scan examines the aorta for any potential problems
- CT heart scan – this scan checks the overall health of the arteries in the heart and looks for early signs of atherosclerosis (plaque build-up)
- CT coronary angiogram – this advanced scan looks at the inside of the arteries to determine the severity of the atherosclerosis.
Detecting heart conditions earlier on makes treating them more effective, so attending regular heart check-ups is crucial.
Monitoring your heart health using tests and scans can ensure that any heart conditions or problems that develop as a result of COVID-19 are dealt with promptly.
Get in touch with Echelon Health
If you have had COVID-19 and are concerned about your heart health, book a health assessment with Echelon Health.
Our health assessment packages can be tailored to meet your needs and provide you with expert diagnosis, treatment and care to support your cardiovascular health.