Caring for Your Heart During COVID-19
Pandemic or not - monitoring your heart health should always be a top priority. However, COVID-19 has led people to wonder - what are the possible side effects for those already dealing with heart disease?
Melsjan Shkullaku, MD, FACC, FSCAI, an Interventional Cardiologist with Adventist Medical Group, discusses what we know so far about COVID-19’s impact on the heart, who is at risk and how to manage your heart health at home.
Why caring for your heart matters
There has been concern among healthcare professionals that patients with pre-existing heart conditions are delaying their care, anxious to leave their homes let alone go to their doctor’s office.
“It is much safer to seek help when experiencing symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, rather than trying to manage the symptoms yourself at home,” says Dr. Shkullaku. “Please know that it is safe to seek care. We are taking all the necessary safety precautions. Ignoring symptoms or delaying your care can lead to serious health complications.”
Even if you think everything is normal, there are some conditions that have no symptoms like high blood pressure. Stress, lack of physical activity and poor eating habits, all things that most of us have experienced this past year, can cause your blood pressure to rise. Because high blood pressure often has no symptoms, you may not know there is a problem.
Maintaining a relationship with your doctor is very important right now. With the use of telehealth, you can still see your doctor and talk to them from the safety of your home. This can help your doctor identify problems before it becomes too late.
What we have learned
At the beginning of the pandemic, it was commonly thought that COVID-19 was primarily a lung disease. However, we now know that pre-existing heart conditions and poor metabolic health increase the risk of severe complications from the virus.
Pre-existing heart conditions weaken the body’s ability to endure the stress of COVID-19. People who have a vulnerable heart are more likely to succumb to the complications of COVID-19, which include abnormally low blood pressure, low oxygen levels and high fevers. Heart complications can include new or worsened problems pumping blood effectively, inflammation of the heart muscle and inflammation of the membrane around the heart.
Poor metabolic health refers to diseases such as type 2 diabetes or prediabetes and obesity, which can themselves cause inflammation and increased risk of blood clots. When combined with the effects of COVID-19, the likelihood of complications increases dramatically.
“While we have learned a lot about this virus, we are continuously unraveling more information. It still remains unclear what long-term effects this virus will have on the body’s cardiovascular system. They may never lead to further symptoms or problems – or they could lead to a change in the way the heart muscle functions. We need to see more studies to determine this,” says Dr. Shkullaku. “This is why it remains vital to practice social distancing, continued use of masks, avoiding large gatherings and frequently washing your hands. Once the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available to you, you should also consider receiving it after talking with your doctor about if it is right for you.”
Tips for managing heart health
The pandemic has made it hard at times to keep your health on track, but it is not impossible. The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to stay healthy and safe. Dr. Shkullaku offers some tips on managing your hearth health at home, including:
Do not delay care. Skipping checkups can lead to long-term health problems. Whether you see your doctor virtually or in person, keeping up to date with your appointments can make all the difference in your preventive care.
Eat healthier. Make healthy eating a priority and opt to cook at home versus ordering takeout. This allows you to monitor what goes into your meals, including your sodium and sugar intake.
Find unique ways to stay active. With the closure of many gyms and recreation centers, you may have to resort to getting creative with your workouts. One way to stay active is to go for a walk around your neighborhood or try modifiable at-home exercises.
Manage your stress. Stress and anxiety are at an all-time high right now, which can be troubling for your heart health. Do not forget to safely manage your mental health by talking to friends and family, try deep-breathing exercises and make time to enjoy things that you love. We often forget our mental health is just as important as our physical health.
Know your risk for heart disease. If you have a family history of heart conditions, you are automatically at increased risk. Regular visits and screenings can help identify risk factors and create a prevention plan.
Abstain from alcohol use. Alcohol use has increased during the pandemic. Alcohol consumption in significant quantities is known to damage the heart.
When to seek help:
It can be easy to brush concerns aside when in the midst of a pandemic. However, it is very important to take any symptoms or signs of heart trouble seriously and seek help. Call 911 immediately if you are experiencing symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, which include:
- Chest or back pain
- Numbness or weakness
- Loss of vision
- Difficulty breathing or speaking
If you have recovered from COVID-19 and experience any of the below effects, you should consult your physician or cardiologist:
- Increasing or extreme shortness of breath
- Irregular heartbeat
- Not being able to lie flat without shortness of breath
- Waking up at night with shortness of breath
- Dizzy spells
If you have concerns about your heart conditions or notice any new or worsening symptoms, take the safe route and talk to your doctor right away.