When most people think about COVID-19, they think of shortness of breath as a result of lungs becoming inflamed. However, over the past year, doctors and researchers have found significant links between severe COVID-19 symptoms and a decline in cardiovascular health, including blood clots, decreased pumping ability, and more.
Can COVID-19 Cause Blood Clots?
As we become more familiar with COVID-19, many doctors and researchers have found that patients with severe cases of the disease tend to experience blood clots. These can be a problem, as they may lead to a heart attack or stroke.
“As the surgical critical care team at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center was discussing their work in the ICU a few weeks ago, I was amazed to hear them express that one of their greatest challenges was that the central intravenous and arterial lines and the dialysis catheters kept unexpectedly clotting in COVID-19 patients in the ICU. “
- Dr. Todd Rosengart
Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine, including cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Todd Rosengart, conducted a clinical trial to determine how they can catch these clots before they cause problems. After delving into different tiers of tests to determine a method for detecting clots, they found that the most accurate way was to use a thromboelastography (TEG) test. A TEG test is a non-invasive technique that determines how quickly a clot forms and its strength and stability using a patient's blood sample. Researchers found that 62% of participants in the clinical trial had developed blood clots that could only be discovered through a TEG test. Therefore, they currently recommend that all COVID-19 patients in the ICU receive a TEG test.
Can COVID-19 Have Long-Term Heart Health Implications?
While COVID-19 is best known for affecting the respiratory system, doctors are finding that it can also damage the heart through several direct and indirect methods. For example, cardiovascular cellular damage through infection of the heart would be a direct form of harm. In contrast, increased stress on the heart from respiratory failure or hypoxemia (lack of oxygen in the blood) would be indirect.
Severe COVID-19 symptoms may put patients at a higher risk of developing:
Catching changes to your heart health as soon as possible is imperative for maintaining good health. If you notice any of the following symptoms, schedule an appointment with your doctor:
- Chest pain
- Chronic, severe swelling in the legs and ankles
- Fluttering in your chest
- Shortness of breath
- Swollen abdomen
COVID-19 and Inflammation of the Pericardium
Viral illnesses can cause pericarditis, a rare disease that inflames the pericardium, which is the membrane that protects the heart. The condition is rare and difficult to diagnose, making it a condition that only highly-specialized hospitals accustomed to caring for patients with prior open-heart procedures and complex valvular heart and coronary conditions can treat.
Physicians at Baylor St. Luke's recently treated a patient with a severe case of pericarditis. The patient, Brett Sweeny, dealt with the disease for years, taking medications and steroids with no luck. Finally, he connected with Dr. Gabriel Loor, who specializes in treating pericarditis with pericardiectomy, a complicated surgery that removes parts of the scarred sac. Brett's surgery was the result of a thorough assessment and tailored approach involving sophisticated MRI imaging and pressure measurements, as well as taking into account the patient's comorbidities. The surgery to remove Brett's pericardium occurred in September, and he reports he can now go back to doing things he enjoys without feeling major fatigue.
Take Care of Your Heart as Your Recover From COVID-19
If you experienced severe symptoms of COVID-19, consult with a St. Luke's Health cardiologist before resuming any strenuous exercise. They can use various tests, from an electrocardiogram (ECG) to blood work, to determine if COVID-19 caused any damage to your cardiovascular system.
If you had a mild case of COVID-19, researchers have determined that a trip to the cardiologist isn't as imperative. However, when working out again, start low and slow. Try to complete about half of the workout you normally would, and work your way back up to your previous level over a week or two. Whether you're exercising or not, keep an eye out for the following symptoms:
- Extreme shortness of breath or lightheadedness with exercise
- Shortness of breath while laying down or trying to sleep
- Heart palpitations or an irregular heartbeat
- Swollen ankles
- Chest pain
If you have recovered from COVID-19 and experience any of the above symptoms, call 911 or head to your nearest emergency room, as these might be a sign of a life-threatening condition.
Baylor College of Medicine | Test can identify undetected blood clots in COVID-19 ICU patients
AHA Journals | COVID-19 and the Heart
Healthline | COVID-19 and the Heart
Healthline | Why You May Want to Get Your Heart Tested if You've Had COVID-19
AHA | What COVID-19 is doing to the heart, even after recovery