August 2, 2021
While COVID-19 was initially considered a respiratory illness, it soon became apparent that COVID-19 could affect multiple organs within the body, including the heart—and even in those who were asymptomatic for COVID-19 and/or who had no prior heart problems. What’s more, those heart issues can linger long after recovery from the virus.
According to the American Heart Association, nearly one-fourth of those hospitalized with COVID-19 have been diagnosed with cardiovascular complications, contributing to about 40% of all COVID-19 related deaths. Of these patients, about one-third have pre-existing cardiovascular disease.
How COVID-19 Can Affect the Heart
“COVID-19 causes inflammation in the body which can lead to multiple cardiovascular complications including inflammation of the heart muscle, a condition called myocarditis, which can lead to heart failure; blood clotting disorders, which can lead to heart attack or stroke; and heart arrhythmia, including atrial fibrillation (AFib), which can also put a person at greater risk of stroke,” says Kuldeep “Danny” Talwar, MD, electrophysiologist and interventional cardiologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Cypress Hospital.
Long COVID and Your Heart
Dr. Talwar can personally attest to the lingering effects of COVID-19. “I had COVID-19 in July (2020). I was diagnosed with pneumonia. And ever since I recovered, my heart rate has been elevated, and I get occasional shortness of breath with over exertion,” he says.
Individuals who experience “post-COVID” conditions, or “Long COVID,” can experience a range of symptoms that can last weeks or months after initial infection. These symptoms can even occur in individuals whose illness was mild, or in individuals who had no COVID-19 symptoms at all.
“Some of these symptoms, such as chest pain, heart palpitations, fatigue and shortness of breath, can be signs of more serious, even life-threatening, heart conditions,” says Dr. Talwar. “If you experience these symptoms, the safe thing to do is to see your primary care physician or cardiologist. He or she can order tests to rule out serious health issues.”
Some scientists believe that some COVID-19 “long-haulers” may actually be experiencing a known condition called postural tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a disorder of the nervous system characterized by an abnormal increase in heart rate that occurs after sitting up or standing. POTS affects the ability of the nervous system to regulate blood flow, including to the brain and the muscles. Typical symptoms include dizziness, fainting, fatigue, exercise intolerance and “brain fog.”
“Many COVID-19 (and post-COVID-19) patients are presenting with POTS-like symptoms,” says Dr. Talwar. “One theory is that some COVID-19 long-haulers develop POTS because the antibodies produced after COVID-19 may attack the autonomic nervous system. More research is required to determine if this is in fact the case.”
Preventing COVID-19 Heart Problems
The best way to prevent COVID-19 related heart issues is to avoid becoming infected in the first place. Protect yourself and your family by getting vaccinated. To learn more, visit memorialhermann.org/vaccine.
The information in this article is accurate as of August 2, 2021.