Heart condition? What you need to know about COVID-19


by Melody Sherwood, MD

Apr 6, 2020

Update: In addition to cough, fever and shortness of breath, possible symptoms of COVID-19 have been expanded to also include sore throat, weakness, muscle pain, diarrhea, vomiting, loss of smell or taste, and chills. If you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, please access the free screening questionnaire via MyBSWHealth.

Although the COVID-19 virus has not been shown to specifically impact the heart and chances of the virus causing any new heart problems are low, it does cause a variety of symptoms that can be problematic for people with underlying heart issues and potentially weakened immune systems.

If you have an existing heart condition like coronary artery disease, heart failure or hypertension, it’s especially important for you to be alert to the facts about this global pandemic — and what you can do to protect yourself.

Underlying heart conditions and COVID-19

Having an underlying heart condition does not necessarily put you at increased risk of acquiring the virus. Like the rest of the world, your chances of acquiring it are heavily dependent upon your exposure to the virus. Hence the need for handwashing, social distancing and other critical infection control measures.

However, if you have an existing heart condition, you are at increased risk of facing complications should you acquire COVID-19. According to a bulletin from the American College of Cardiology, based on early reports, 40% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients had existing cardiovascular disease or cerebrovascular disease (which refers to blood flow in the brain, such as stroke).

Like most viruses including the seasonal flu, COVID-19 puts increased demands on the body — and people with heart disease or other heart conditions have less cardiac reserve to deal with those increased demands. The prevalence of new heart problems occurring because of the body’s reaction to the viral syndrome are low,

The virus mainly affects the lungs by decreasing their ability to take in oxygen. This makes the heart’s job of pumping oxygenated blood much harder, especially for a heart that is already not functioning at its highest level. COVID-19 also increases the amount of stress placed on your heart due to inflammation as your body tries to fight off the infection.

All of these stressors can increase your chances of heart attack or other serious complications.

Related: What to do if you think you have COVID-19

What you can do to lower your risk

If you have an existing heart condition, be sure and take every measure to avoid exposure to the virus. Follow basic infection prevention measures outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including washing your hands frequently with soap and water for 20 seconds, practicing social distancing and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces with CDC-recommended products.

It is not unusual to feel anxious during this pandemic, whether you have a chronic condition or not. But managing your stress levels is a critical step in taking care of your heart. By taking care of your mind, you’re taking care of your body, too.

Here are a few ways you can take care of your heart, minimize feelings of anxiety and protect yourself from COVID-19 — all at the same time.

  • Talk to your doctor. Don’t be afraid to voice your questions and concerns about your heart health and COVID-19. Ask your doctor what to do if you start exhibiting symptoms of the virus. Make sure you feel confident in how to continue your routine heart care from home and ask your doctor about virtual care options.
  • Follow a heart-healthy diet, including fresh fruits and vegetables, foods low in fat and cholesterol and lean sources of protein.
  • Ensure adequate sleep. Try to stick to a routine as much as possible and aim for the recommended 7-9 hours each night.
  • Exercise daily. Even without access to a gym, you can still find ways to exercise! Go for a walk or run, pull out your old bicycle from the garage, give yoga a try or take advantage of free videos online for an effective at-home workout.
  • Meditate. If you’ve never tried meditation, now is the time. Meditating daily can help lower your stress levels.
  • Lean on your support system. Now more than ever, we need each other to help cope and find joy in the midst of trials. Reach out to friends and family — virtually, if necessary — and lean on them for support and encouragement.
  • Keep occupied with hobbies. Don’t have a hobby? Try one of these.

While it is important to stay informed regarding COVID-19, it is also important to be cognizant of how much time you are spending consuming news about the virus. Find your balance of being informed while maintaining proper distance for the sake of your mental health.

If you develop any symptoms of COVID-19 — which vary but can include cough, fever or shortness of breath — or begin to experience any heart problems, contact your doctor immediately. In the event of any medical emergency, call 911 or visit your nearest emergency department.

To read more expert advice about COVID-19, visit BSWHealth.com.

About the Author

Melody Sherwood, MD, is a cardiologist on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center. She specializes in advanced heart failure and transplant cardiology.

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