COVID-19, also known as coronavirus disease, is a virus that caused a worldwide pandemic in 2020. Its symptoms range in severity, as some may only experience flu-like effects like fever and fatigue. But, in other people, it can cause serious complications that are fatal even after they ha’ve recovered, like brain fog or a pulmonary embolism (a.k.a. an arterial blood clot).
If you have suffered symptoms for over a month, you may have long COVID, which can profoundly affect your heart and other organs. Learn what heart problems you may face after COVID-19 so you can take the necessary steps to protect your well-being.
How does long COVID affect your heart?
COVID-19 enters your cells by using the spike protein on its surfaces to bind to your cells’ protein, known as ACE2. ACE2 is found in various types of cells in your body, so this ability gives COVID-19 access to almost any cell. This allows it to attack your muscles and organs, including your heart.
These are some of the different ways that long-term COVID-19 can affect your heart health, whether temporarily or permanently:
Long-term COVID-19 can cause symptoms that are similar to a heart attack, such as:
- Palpitations or irregular heartbeat
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
Even if you are experiencing these symptoms, healthcare providers may not find any blockages to your heart’s blood vessels when they conduct an angiogram. Researchers are still trying to understand why this happens.
However, if you suspect that you are having a heart attack, seek immediate medical help and don’t simply wait for your symptoms to go away.
Also known as inflammation of the heart, myocarditis happens when the virus infects the endothelial cells lining your blood vessels. The SARS-CoV-2 virus can cause blood clots, inflammation around your blood vessels, or damage to smaller vessels like your capillaries.
It can also directly cause heart inflammation by damaging your heart muscle, but, in some cases, myocarditis is caused by your own immune system’s attempts to fight the virus.
When COVID-19 attacks your heart, it stresses your body out. This stress can trigger the release of catecholamines, a chemical that shocks the heart. This shock can cause cardiomyopathy, a heart disease that impairs your heart’s ability to pump blood. Fortunately, this is temporary and your heart can recover from this after your COVID-19 infection.
Lack of oxygen
When the coronavirus attacks, your immune system may trigger inflammation in your lungs as a defense mechanism. This can cause fluid to fill up your lung’s air sacs, reducing the amount of oxygen that reaches your bloodstream. Your heart will have to pump harder to make up for this, and the strain can cause heart failure.
If your cells don’t get enough oxygen, this can damage your tissue and cause cell death, which also leads to heart failure. This condition is especially dangerous for those who already have a heart condition or lung disease prior to their COVID-19 infection, as they already have a higher risk of lowered oxygen levels.
How does long COVID cause heart problems?
COVID-19 primarily affects your respiratory system. However, it can also affect your other organs, causing chronic conditions like brain fog and sleep disorders. Public health systems and experts are still trying to understand how this works.
When responding to a COVID-19 infection, your immune system releases cytokines, a type of protein that helps your cells communicate and fight invaders. But, in some cases, your system could release too many cytokines, causing inflammation and damaging many organs and healthy cells. This is known as a cytokine storm, and these elevated levels of cytokines can disrupt your heart’s regular rhythm and cause heart damage.
Who’s at risk?
Studies have shown that the potential risks of long-term COVID-19 are highest for those who have suffered serious symptoms, especially those who had to be intubated or given intensive care unit care. Unvaccinated people are also more likely to suffer COVID-19’s long-term consequences.
However, even patients who had a mild case of COVID-19 are at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular problems than uninfected people. This elevated risk persists up to a year after testing positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Research has revealed that patients had increased risks even if they didn’t have any of these pre-existing high-risk factors for cardiovascular problems:
- Kidney disease
COVID-19 is an equal opportunity offender that increases the risk of cardiovascular problems in old and young people. Even if you are fit, don’t smoke or drink, or only suffered mild symptoms, you already have higher cardiovascular risks. Regardless of the severity of your symptoms or the number of times you have had COVID-19, it’s best to consult a healthcare provider during and after your illness.
Long COVID and your heart: symptoms to watch out for
If you experience the following symptoms long after you have recovered from COVID-19, it may be a sign of heart damage:
- Heart palpitations or irregular heartbeats
- High blood pressure
- Chest pain
- Lowered oxygen levels
- Shortness of breath
Long-term COVID-19 affects different people in different ways, so it can be tough to determine if your symptoms are caused by COVID-19 or by a different condition. This is especially true if you didn’t suffer any serious problems with your health before getting COVID-19.
However, if your oxygen levels drop below 92%, your shortness of breath or chest pain doesn’t disappear within 15 minutes, or your lips or face turn blue, get immediate medical help. These are signs that your body doesn’t have enough oxygen, and you will need a cardiologist to evaluate you.
Is a heart attack more likely after COVID-19?
The likelihood of suffering a heart attack after getting COVID-19 depends on several risk factors. There are several types of heart attacks based on the complications that cause them.
A type 1 heart attack, for example, is caused when blood clots block an artery. This type of heart attack is rare, whether during a COVID-19 infection or afterward.
However, type 2 heart attacks are more likely after COVID-19. These heart attacks are caused when the heart has increased stress due to conditions like anemia or low oxygen levels. The damage that COVID-19 wreaks on your lungs can drastically lower the amount of oxygen that reaches your blood, leading to an increased risk of type 2 heart attacks.
What about heart problems in children after COVID-19?
Generally, children infected with COVID-19 don’t suffer complications as severely as adults do. However, in some rare cases, children may develop a serious COVID-19 complication known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C).
MIS-C causes serious damage to the heart muscle, potentially leading to cardiac shock or even death. Children who survive MIS-C may suffer from abnormal heart rhythms and stiffer heart muscles, so their cardiovascular system may have problems with blood flow.
Children can develop Post-COVID heart problems long after recovering from their infection or surviving MIS-C. Keep an eye out for the following symptoms in your child during their illness and after they have recovered:
- Shortness of breath
- Irregular heartbeat
- Chest pains
It’s best to have children vaccinated as soon as they are eligible to prevent COVID-19 infection. Consult your child’s pediatrician to find out when they can take the COVID-19 vaccine, what to do if they ‘are already sick, and how to help them return to regular Post-COVID activities.
Is heart damage caused by COVID-19 permanent?
The heart’s capacity to recover from COVID-19 damage depends on the extent of myocardial injury. For now, more research is still underway on the long-term effects that COVID-19 has on the body, including potentially increased risk for heart conditions. While COVID-19 has been shown to cause some heart tissue scarring and impair the heart’s ability to pump, experts are still uncertain how long these effects will linger.
If you are recovering from COVID-19, it ‘is advised that you take your recovery gradually. Don’t rush going back to your regular exercise load, try breathing exercises, and get plenty of rest to give your body time to recover. Don’t expect an immediate ability to return to your daily level of physical activity, as forcing this could just put more stress on your immune system and heart.
Can you prevent long COVID-related heart problems?
Medical experts are still studying the best ways to prevent getting COVID-19, long-term COVID, and heart problems that develop as a result of the coronavirus. For now, the best way to prevent developing poor cardiovascular outcomes is by preventing infection.
As soon as you are eligible for the vaccine and the boosters, get them to strengthen your immune response and lower the risk of developing a severe COVID-19 infection. Even those who get breakthrough infections – a.k.a. infections despite being vaccinated – are at a lower risk of getting long-term COVID-19 compared to unvaccinated people.
When should I see Aa doctor if I’m having =heart symptoms after coronavirus?
Generally, if you recovered from a mild case of COVID-19 and no longer suffer any symptoms, seeing a doctor may not be so urgent. However, if you have had moderate to severe COVID-19, it’s best to see a doctor and get heart screenings to check for any myocardial injury.
Pay close attention to your body’s natural warning signs. If you experience shortness of breath or chest pain, see a doctor as soon as possible to find out your next course of action.
The bottom Line
COVID-19 damages your cardiovascular system and increases your risk of heart disease, no matter where you have fallen on the spectrum of infection. It’s hard to know exactly how likely you are to develop Post-COVID conditions later on or until when COVID-19 increases the risk of cardiovascular disease in recovered patients.
If you are worried about heart disease and other long-term COVID-19 effects, consult your physician. They can run diagnostics like blood tests to check how the SARS-CoV-2 virus has affected your risk of cardiovascular disease. Once they learn more, they can help you plan the best course of action for your health.
If you feel you are alone in your Post-COVID-19 journey, we are here to help. Know more about the support we offer and end your Post-COVID heart problems by reaching out to us. Contact us now.