Growing concern about the virus’ potential impact on critical organs
While the majority of people who become infected with COVID-19 recover in a reasonably short period of time – typically in a couple of weeks or less – some have lengthier illnesses. In certain cases, people may suffer long-lasting effects for months after initially recovering from the virus. Called post-COVID-19 syndrome or long COVID-19 patients, these individuals may suffer damage to organs such as their heart, lung or brain.
“While COVID-19 is thought to primarily affect the lungs, we are seeing it affect the heart as well as other organs,” said Samantha Kapphahn, DO, FACC, FSCAI, Interventional Cardiologist with ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care. “Even with patients who have appeared to recover from the early days of their infection, there are patients with COVID-19 who continue to have ongoing issues that can arise from having cardiac muscle injury and inflammation. This can lead to heart rhythm issues, decreased heart function and persistent symptoms that limit ability to return to a level of physical functioning that was experienced before their infection.”
The degree of severity during the early infection does not consistently predict the ability to identify who may become affected by long-term symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists the most common post-COVID-19 syndrome symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Joint pain
- Chest pain
- Difficulty with thinking and concentration, aka “brain fog”
- Muscle pain
- Intermittent fever
- Fast-beating or pounding heart, aka heart palpitations
Impact on the Heart
Dr. Kapphahn explained in those patients who are hospitalized, it is common to see indication of heart muscle inflammation.
“We are noting a strong connection between COVID-19 and heart inflammation, known as viral myocarditis,” she said. “This can result in areas of muscle scar, potential weakening of the heart muscle, and lead to abnormal heart rhythms. These events can cause ongoing issues of chest pain, shortness of breath, sensations of high heart rates, feeling very lightheaded and very fatigued. In significant cases, the heart rhythm changes can be life-threatening if the degree of muscle weakness and scarring is significant.”
Other cardiac-related concerns COVID-19 can cause include unusual clotting or clumping of blood cells.
“Large clots can cause heart attacks or strokes, but researchers also are beginning to suspect that COVID-19 may cause small clots that block capillaries in the heart muscle,” explained Dr. Kapphahn. “We are still learning what the long-term effects of such blockages may be.”
She noted the blood vessels of the lungs, arms and legs, brain, liver and kidneys can be impacted by the increased clotting ability in those with COVID-19.
When to Seek Care
“While we’ve learned much about the virus in the past year, the issue of long-term COVID-19 complications is one we will continue to learn about in the coming months and longer,” she said. “At this time, we can’t say for sure how long people will experience these complications.”
She has further advice for patients.
“For those who are suffering from long-term effects, keep in contact with your health care provider and report any new or unusual symptoms, especially any chest pain, shortness of breath or abnormal heart beats so that any appropriate testing or additional evaluation may be pursued,” she said. “For those with history of competing in athletics or desiring to return to a high level of rigorous physical activity, discussion with their health care provider is recommended, especially if symptoms are persistent with light activity. Patience is necessary as time is still needed to allow for recovery.”
Precaution is Still Key
Lastly she stressed the only way to prevent long-term complications is to prevent COVID-19 in the first place.
“The best strategies for preventing COVID-19 infection are to wear a mask in public places, stay at least six feet away from other people, frequently wash your hands and avoid crowds and confined or poorly ventilated spaces,” she said. “With new, possibly more contagious variants of the virus showing up, now is not the time to relax these protective behaviors.”
If you’re experiencing lingering or long-term complications from COVID-19, it is best to discuss your symptoms with your provider. Learn about the many safe care options available to you at https://getcarenow.thedacare.org/