You’ve likely heard repeatedly that the novel coronavirus can cause people to have difficulty breathing and can lead to respiratory illness. What you might not know is that the novel coronavirus can also cause heart problems and cardiac arrest. Kaiser News reports on one study that found that COVID-19 caused heart damage in as many as one in five people.
Heart specialists who have studied the data believe that COVID-19 can infect your heart muscle. It might attach to receptors in heart muscle much as it attaches to receptors in lungs. In fact, it can cause cardiac damage or heart failure in people who have no respiratory issues. In many cases it presents as if people are having a heart attack.
People with heart conditions need to be especially careful of getting COVID-19, as the risk of death from cardiac damage is high. But, even people who do not have heart disease might end up with heart damage as a result of COVID-19. And, the risk of harm from the virus for them is high. It’s not known whether people who end up with cardiac issues as a result of COVID-19 are simply genetically predisposed to this outcome or have more exposure to the virus than other people.
It’s also still unclear whether COVID-19 is directly causing heart problems or whether it indirectly affects people’s hearts. Being seriously sick or getting medical care for any health condition, even hip surgery, can damage people’s hearts. For example, pneumonia will cause people’s hearts to stop if they are unable to get enough oxygen into their systems. Or, it can cause inflammation, which in turn leads to heart attacks or weakening of heart muscles and heart failure.
A heart biopsy can determine whether the heart muscle has the virus. But, that’s an invasive procedure. It’s unnecessary for the patient. And, it’s risky for doctors to perform in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, with limited PPE. So, it’s not possible to know the full extent to which the virus is infecting people’s heart muscle.