How Could COVID-19 Damage Your Heart?

by Kroger Health Staff

Last Updated: March 11, 2021

Even though COVID-19 was initially known as a respiratory virus, many medical experts now believe a COVID-19 infection can threaten the heart too. COVID-19 survivors have reported cardiac-related symptoms such as chest pain, extreme shortness of breath with exertion, swelling of ankles, irregular heartbeat or heart palpitations, lightheadedness, or dizzy spells during the course of the illness.

Other illnesses — including the common cold — have been associated with cardiac dysfunction on rare occasions. Still, COVID’s effect on the heart appears to be serious and more long-term than other illnesses.

While most COVID-19 survivors return to health after infection, some have symptoms that last weeks or months after recovery. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recognizes inflammation in the heart, or myocarditis, as one of the more serious long-term complications of COVID-19. Myocarditis prevents the heart from doing its job effectively. It often resolves itself over time without long-term side effects, but it can lead to abnormal heart rhythms and chronic heart failure in some patients.

An observational study from Germany looked at MRI results from 100 adult patients who had recently recovered from COVID-19. The study showed abnormal heart findings—including inflammation in the heart and muscle lining—in more than 75% of people studied. And not all had serious cases. In fact, 67% of the patients studied had treated their COVID-19 symptoms at home and did not require hospitalization.

The journal Heart Rhythm published a study in June that found 20 to 30 percent of people hospitalized with COVID-19 showed signs of cardiac injury. But it isn’t just the most critically ill patients that develop heart damage. Another study of athletes found the virus can harm heart tissue even in those who had mild symptoms or recovered.

Damage to cardiac tissue doesn’t necessarily mean COVID-19 directly infected the heart. To inflict damage on the heart, a virus doesn’t even need to enter heart tissue. If a virus causes enough damage to the lungs, it can result in less oxygen being sent to the heart, damaging the heart muscle.

If you are experiencing concerning cardiac symptoms, contact your healthcare provider.

Blood clots have also been found in many COVID-19 patients. COVID-19 can make some blood cells clump and form clots. Some research indicates the heart damage caused by COVID-19 comes from tiny clots that block capillaries in the heart, and the clots remain after the virus has cleared the body.

Those with a pre-existing heart condition have a greater risk of damage. Hypertension or high blood pressure is thought to be the greatest risk factor, and studies show that people with uncontrolled or untreated high blood pressure may be at high risk of getting severely ill with COVID-19 and suffering from heart damage. Those with untreated high blood pressure seem to be more at risk of complications from COVID-19 than those taking medication to control their blood pressure.

While there is still much to be learned from those recovering from COVID-19, it is possible that the cardiac damage could heal itself after a COVID-19 infection. Those who contract COVID-19 should consult their physician to determine any needed cardiac care.

Disclaimer: The information in this story is accurate as of its publication. However, the situation surrounding COVID-19 is ever-evolving. We are working to keep our stories up-to-date as changes occur, but we also encourage everyone to check news and recommendations from the CDC, WHO, and their local authorities.