When you think of COVID-19, you likely think of its effects on the lungs. However, this respiratory illness can impact other parts of your body as well.

COVID-19 can lead to heart damage in some people, which may increase their risk of developing heart issues in the future.

This article will take a look at how COVID-19 may affect the heart, what problems this may cause, and who’s most at risk.

There are several ways in which COVID-19 can affect the heart. Let’s examine these in more detail.

Direct infection

The virus that causes COVID-19 binds to a protein called ACE2 to enter cells in your body. Besides the lungs, ACE2 can be found in many organs and tissues throughout your body, including your heart and blood vessels.

As such, it’s possible that the virus is able to directly infect cells in your heart and blood vessels, leading to their damage.

Immune response

COVID-19 causes an increase in the levels of inflammation in your body. This rise in inflammation is caused by the immune system as it works to respond to the infection.

However, the immune response can be a double-edged sword. When it becomes too intense, it can actually cause damage to healthy tissues, including the heart.

Low oxygen levels

It’s also possible that heart damage happens because the heart is getting less oxygen. This can happen when the lungs are severely affected by COVID-19.

It’s also possible for the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart to be disrupted by the presence of blood clots, which can happen during COVID-19. These blood clots are believed to be caused by high levels of inflammation.

When the organs and tissues of your body don’t get enough oxygen, they can begin to die. Furthermore, when your heart isn’t getting enough oxygen itself, it’s more difficult for it to effectively pump oxygen-rich blood to other parts of your body.

Stress cardiomyopathy

Stress cardiomyopathy is also known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. Cardiomyopathy is a condition affecting the heart muscle that makes it more difficult for your heart to pump blood.

High levels of physical or emotional stress can lead to stress cardiomyopathy. Having COVID-19 can potentially lead to both of these types of stress.

A 2022 study found that the potential heart problems after COVID-19 are very diverse. It compared a group of 153,760 U.S. veterans who’d had COVID-19 to two control groups of veterans that had no history of COVID-19.

Compared to both control groups, participants who’d had COVID-19 had an increased risk of the following heart problems over a period of 12 months:

  • Arrhythmia: Arrhythmia is when your heart beats too quickly, too slowly, or irregularly. Some types of arrhythmia can be life threatening.
  • Blood clots: Blood clots are clumps of blood that can potentially block blood vessels, leading to complications like deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, and heart attack.
  • Heart attack: A heart attack happens when blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked. Heart attacks are a medical emergency, as they can lead to lasting heart damage or death.
  • Heart failure: Heart failure is when your heart is no longer able to effectively pump blood to your body. It can lead to excess fluid buildup in your body as well as problems with your lungs, kidneys, and liver.
  • Myocarditis: Myocarditis is an inflammation of the heart muscle. It has the potential to cause weakening of the heart, which can contribute to heart failure.
  • Pericarditis: Pericarditis is the swelling of the protective sac that surrounds the heart. It can lead to fluid buildup around the heart as well as scarring of the heart.
  • Stroke: A stroke happens when blood flow to the brain is disrupted, potentially leading to serious neurological complications and death. Like a heart attack, a stroke is a medical emergency.

Other recent research supports these findings. For example, another 2022 study compared cardiovascular outcomes over 12 months in a large group of people who’d had COVID-19 and a matched group of individuals who had not.

The researchers in this study observed a higher risk of many of the same heart problems in people who had had COVID-19, including arrhythmias, blood clots, and myocarditis.

The results of the 2022 study discussed above show that the risk of COVID-19-related heart disease remains elevated regardless of other factors like age, gender, ethnicity, or preexisting medical conditions.

While the risk of heart problems was highest in people with severe COVID-19, it still existed in those who didn’t need to be hospitalized. People without a prior history of heart disease were also at risk of post-COVID-19 heart problems.

COVID-19 is often associated with more severe complications in people who are older, have severe illness, or have other underlying health conditions.

However, this research shows that heart problems can still happen in people who are younger, only had a mild illness, or have no history of cardiovascular disease or other medical conditions.

What if you already have heart problems?

It appears that anyone is potentially at risk of COVID-19-related heart disease, but if you already have existing cardiovascular disease, getting COVID-19 can lead to severe illness or potentially cause your condition to worsen.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some types of cardiovascular disease that can increase your risk of severe COVID-19 include:

The COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective for people with heart issues. In fact, the American Heart Association notes that getting the COVID-19 vaccine is a high priority for those with cardiovascular disease.

Getting vaccinated for COVID-19 is especially important for people with cardiovascular disease because these individuals are at a higher risk of complications and serious illness due to COVID-19.

If you have cardiovascular disease and haven’t yet been vaccinated, talk with your doctor about your COVID-19 vaccine options.

About myocarditis, pericarditis, and the COVID-19 vaccine

If you have heart issues, you may be concerned about the risk of myocarditis and pericarditis after getting the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. According to the CDC, these side effects are most common in male adolescents and young adults.

These side effects are also very rare. In fact, a 2022 study of over 42 million people who’d received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine found that only 2,861 people (0.007%) developed myocarditis.

The risk of myocarditis and pericarditis is actually higher after getting COVID-19 than after being vaccinated. In fact, according to another 2022 study, compared to vaccination, the risk of heart complications after COVID-19 infection was:

  • 2 to 6 times higher in adolescent males
  • 7 to 8 times higher in young adult males
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The best way to protect yourself from COVID-19-related heart disease is to stay up-to-date on your COVID-19 vaccines, including all recommended boosters.

In addition to getting vaccinated, you can also take other steps to prevent contracting COVID-19. This includes:

  • avoiding contact with people who are currently ill with or have suspected COVID-19
  • washing your hands frequently with soap and water
  • moving activities and gatherings outdoors, if possible
  • wearing a mask and practicing physical distancing when you’re out in public, as necessary
  • improving airflow and ventilation in your house, such as opening a window and making sure to change your air filter regularly

Preventing heart disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. As such, taking steps to reduce your risk of heart disease is also important. This can include:

Researchers have found that COVID-19 can increase the risk of heart problems in the future. These heart issues can include conditions like arrhythmias, heart failure, and myocarditis.

The exact way that COVID-19 affects the heart is unknown. However, it’s likely that damage to the heart happens due to one or a combination of factors like direct infection of the heart tissue, increased inflammation, or lower oxygen levels.

Staying up-to-date on your COVID-19 vaccines is the most effective way to prevent COVID-19 complications like heart problems. If you have questions or concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine, be sure to discuss them with your doctor.