Winter and respiratory viruses go hand-in-hand. And this can be a big problem for your heart — especially with the recent severe flu and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) season in addition to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Divya Gupta, MD, has seen the impact viral diseases can have on the heart. In her role as medical director for the Heart Failure and Transplantation Cardiology team at Emory Healthcare, she recognizes the challenges that the flu and COVID-19 can bring to high-risk and healthy patients.
“There’s more than one viral illness around right now. So, it’s not just one disease causing concern. Both the flu and COVID-19 have serious side effects,” says Dr. Gupta. “Getting vaccinated against both the flu and COVID-19 helps reduce the severity of illness and protects your heart health.”
How Are the Flu and COVID-19 Connected to Heart Health?
When you come down with a respiratory illness like the flu or COVID-19, your lungs don’t work as well, and your heart must work harder to get oxygenated blood throughout your body.
“Some of the effects we know, and some we don’t, especially since COVID-19 is still relatively new compared to the flu,” says Dr. Gupta. “However, we do know these illnesses cause inflammation. And inflammation can be harmful to your heart.”
Some of the impacts of COVID-19 and the flu on the heart include:
- Inflammation of the heart (myocarditis)
- Inflammation of the blood vessels of the heart
- Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
- Blood clots
Researchers have also found a connection between the flu and heart attacks. A 2018 study from the New England Journal of Medicine reported that patients had an increased risk of a heart attack for up to seven days after their flu symptoms subsided. Another recent study showed that people are at much higher risk of myocarditis after being infected with COVID-19 than they are after they get the COVID-19 vaccine.
COVID-19 can also lead to multisystemic inflammatory syndrome. This condition causes inflammation throughout the body, and, in severe cases, it can cause multiple organs to shut down.
“These complications can be very mild, and you might not even realize you are sick. Or they can be severe, to the point of requiring a bypass machine to keep you alive,” says Dr. Gupta. “It all depends on how the virus impacts your heart and can vary based on your medical history.”
Dr. Gupta notes that some previously stable heart failure patients who contracted COVID-19 later needed heart transplants and other interventions months down the road because of the impact the virus had on the heart.
“There’s no single path for the disease, which can be a bit terrifying,” says Dr. Gupta. “Patients should do their best not to get COVID-19 or the flu. They should get vaccinated at their earliest opportunity. Fortunately, Emory Healthcare can care for patients with the full spectrum of these diseases, from mild to severe. We have the largest transplant center in Georgia and one of the largest LVAD programs in the country to support our patients’ heart health.” In addition, Emory Healthcare achieved a 93% overall survival rate for patients treated during the COVID-19 pandemic—among the highest seen in globally published data.
Who Is at Risk?
The patients most at risk for cardiac events after contracting COVID-19 or the flu are those already at higher risk for heart disease. These include older patients or patients with other risk factors. However, doctors have found that younger men are also at higher risk for myocarditis from COVID-19.
“Getting vaccinated against both COVID-19 and the flu helps lower the risks to your heart from these viruses,” says Dr. Gupta. “You may still get the virus after your vaccine, but your symptoms or any complications may not be as bad.”
Vaccination reduces your body’s need for a full-blown immunological response to fight the effects of the virus, added Dr. Gupta. And when your body does not need to fight a virus, it is at a lower risk for dangerous events like heart attacks. In addition, several studies from the American Heart Association have found that the flu vaccination can lower the risk of heart attack, stroke and death from heart disease.
What Can Patients Do To Protect Their Hearts?
While the connections between COVID-19, the flu and heart health are scary, patients can reduce their risk by getting vaccinated against both diseases.
“Prevention is the easiest way to protect your heart since you can stop these diseases from becoming a bigger problem,” says Dr. Gupta.
In addition to vaccination, Dr. Gupta reminds patients to continue to follow the three Ws: wash your hands, wear a mask and watch your distance. These good practices prevent the spread of viral diseases, especially during winter when these diseases circulate heavily. Before you head to a gathering of friends or family, consider a test for COVID-19 and the flu. And if you feel sick, stay home so you don’t spread the disease to friends, families, colleagues or strangers.
If you get sick with COVID-19 or the flu, seek medical attention if you have chest pain or feel your heart racing or beating irregularly.
A Provider Who’s Right for You
Emory Healthcare offers a wide range of primary care services. With the variety of backgrounds, interests and experiences our providers have, you’re sure to find one who’s a good match for you.
Comprehensive Heart and Vascular Care
If you or a loved one has a cardiovascular concern involving the heart, arteries or veins, you will want to consult with doctors who are at the top of their fields – physicians who are sought-after experts, highly skilled, and leading the way to new and better methods of treating heart disease.
Emory Heart & Vascular Center brings together more than 175 physicians, offering comprehensive medical and surgical treatments for the full range of heart and vascular conditions. The Center includes 18 specialized programs in cardiology, cardiac surgery, vascular surgery and cardiovascular imaging.
We see patients at six hospitals with more than 23 community locations. Depending on your need, we can see you as early as the next day.
For more information or to find a provider near you, call 404-778-7777.