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Doctors are actively working to learn about the short- and long-term health effects associated with COVID-19. One finding is clear: There are many ways the infection can harm someone’s health and many organs besides lungs are affected.
Cardiologists, in particular, are concerned about COVID-19’S effect on the cardiovascular system. Heart conditions associated with the virus include inflammation and damage to the heart muscle itself, known as myocarditis, which is an inflammation of the covering of the heart.
In August, several college conferences postponed their sports seasons citing the risks posed to athletes by the coronavirus. Studies showed that some athletes with COVID-19 had shown signs of myocarditis.
John P. Erwin, MD, a cardiologist and Louise W. Coon Chair of Medicine, NorthShore Chairman of the Department of Medicine, said the heart can both actively and passively be affected in a COVID-19 infection.
“Like any serious illness, those with underlying cardiac conditions are at the highest risk of complications- including cardiac complications from the stress of an infection,” he said. “Additionally, there are factors at play with this disease that can directly affect the heart and the blood vessels leading to potential downstream disability. Any lingering effects after COVID, especially those of fainting, skipped heartbeats, chest pain, and persistent or worsening shortness of breath, should be assessed by your physician”
Here, Dr. Erwin answers questions about how the virus affects the heart:
Before the pandemic hit, how common was myocarditis and in what age group was it most prevalent?Myocarditis has been with us with varying prevalence in many disease states and infections well before COVID. It can strike at any age, but it has been the second leading cause of sudden cardiac death noted in athletes for quite some time.
What is the treatment for myocarditis? Is it usually successful?’We treat it like other forms of heart failure. We are increasingly successful at treating all forms of heart failure where the heart pump is weakened. There are several proven medicines that work well and we do have the ability to use supportive devices and/or heart transplants in the worst of cases.
Besides myocarditis, what other ways can COVID-19 damage the cardiovascular system?It can cause blood clots in any vessel- including those supplying the lungs, the limbs, and the brain (which can lead to stroke).
It’s not just athletes, there have been healthy adult COVID-19 patients who suffered heart damage. Do we know why some patients experience this and others don’t? We don’t know this as of yet, but we are studying it. We do know that the true prevalence of severe/life-threatening myocarditis is low in young, otherwise healthy athletes.
If it’s rare for a younger patient to experience heart damage, who is at high risk for heart effects after a COVID-19 infection?Those with pre-existing medical conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes- also those with prolonged or protracted symptoms.
You mentioned several ways COVID-19 damages the heart. Are these short- or long-term effects?This is yet to be determined. We will be dutifully researching this and have a keen eye in our follow up of these people who have been affected.