While COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, the evidence is showing that it affects more than the lungs. There are indications that the heart can suffer damage as well.
“The initial recognition of what this virus is and the mode of entry kind of made us focus more toward the lungs, but it does affect a lot of the heart as well,” said Dr. Chetan Bhardwaj, cardiologist, OSF HealthCare Cardiovascular Institute.
What the studies show
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- Cardiogenic shock – a condition in which your heart suddenly can’t pump enough blood to meet your body’s needs, which is usually caused by a severe heart attack.
- Incidents of heart attacks
- Heart failure
- Myocarditis (bruising of the heart)
How the virus attacks the heart
The virus connects with cells through an enzyme called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). The enzyme is found on cell surfaces throughout the body.
“It is one of these viruses that we’ve learned to describe as cardiotropic, so it has an affinity to attack the heart,” Dr. Bhardwaj said. “There are receptors where these viruses go and attach so that they can attack the cells, and those receptors are present in the heart.”
It also appears that the body’s immune response to the virus can cause excessive inflammation and blood clotting, which can make it difficult for people suffering from heart complications due to COVID-19 to recover.
“The heart gets affected somewhat more in the later stage of the disease. People that have their hearts afflicted with this virus, in the literature at least, are shown to be very bad in terms of prognosis,” Dr. Bhardwaj said. “They tend to have a much worse outcome and clinical course.”
How you can protect yourself
There are new studies underway. Unfortunately, we still don’t know the lasting effects of COVID-19 on those infected, and the best defense is prevention – take every precaution to avoid the virus.
“If you have pre-existing heart conditions, pre-existing diabetes, hypertension or immunosuppression, you are at a higher risk of a bad outcome with this virus,” Dr. Bhardwaj said. “Do everything that the CDC recommends. This should be standard practice now, and it shouldn’t be debatable.”
For more information on COVID-19, including frequently asked questions, visit the OSF HealthCare COVID-19 digital health hub.
If you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and it is not an emergency, use one of the OSF digital care options. You can connect through Clare, a digital assistant available through the OSF website, or by calling the 24/7 nurse hotline at 833-OSF-KNOW (833-673-5669).