Coronavirus can directly injure the heart, Upstate cardiologist explains

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GREENVILLE, S.C. (WSPA) – Bon Secours cardiologist Dr. Zachary Dowdy said doctors are finding that COVID-19 could cause long-lasting damage to the heart.

“About a quarter of infected people actually have abnormal lab work and that basically shows that they’ve had injury to the heart,” he said. “One third of those patients have underlying cardiovascular disease. That includes congestive heart failure [and] that includes coronary artery disease. They’re more than twice as likely to get severe illness going into the ICU [or] being intubated.”

He explained that after contracting COVID-19, the virus could directly invade the heart.

“You can develop excess fluid in the lungs and you can get hemostatic instability, so low blood pressure, low oxygen levels.”

Harvard Medical School further explained that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can damage the heart by inflaming the heart muscle, and may also indirectly harm the heart by disrupting the balance between oxygen supply and demand. 

Researchers said inflammation of the heart muscle, called myocarditis, typically occurs only in patients with advanced COVID-19 disease, and that when this occurs, the heart may become enlarged and weakened, leading to low blood pressure and fluid in the lungs. While this severe form of myocarditis is rare, it said a recent study showed that asymptomatic heart inflammation was seen on magnetic resonance imaging in up to three-quarters of patients who had recovered from severe COVID-19.

Dr. Dowdy also said COVID-19 could cause blood clots, creating other issues.

“You can get blood clots in the arteries supplying the heart itself and that causes a traditional heart attack,” Dr. Dowdy said.

Harvard researchers said “COVID-19-related inflammation raises the risk of this type of heart attack by activating the body’s clotting system and disrupting the blood vessel lining. When inflamed, this lining loses its ability to resist clot formation. These blood clots in the large and small arteries of the heart cut off its supply of oxygen. The increased clotting tendency can also lead to blood clots in the lungs, which can cause a drop in blood oxygen levels. Severe pneumonia drops blood oxygen further. When the oxygen demand exceeds the supply, the heart muscle is damaged.”

If you’ve had COVID-19, Dr. Dowdy said to watch for heart issues down the road.

“We’ve used hard-imaging cardiac MRI that does suggest the heart inflammation occurs in three quarters of asymptomatic patients who survived the severe viral infection,” he said.

Dr. Dowdy urged anyone to go to the emergency room if you notice symptoms of cardiovascular disease, including chest pain, shortness of breath, palpitations, or leg swelling.

While recovering from COVID-19, he generally recommended easing back into exercise while staying in touch with your doctor.

“A light intensity easing would be starting to walk, walk with a loved one,” he said.

However, he reminded everyone that lifestyle choices go a long way before and after recovery in keeping your heart healthy.

“Eating a Mediterranean diet and kind of enrolling yourself in a moderate intensity exercise regimen is is the key is the key of having good heart health,” he said.

Harvard Medical School has published more information about the effects COVID-19 appears to have on the heart.

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