Now that the coronavirus has your attention, here’s how to protect yourself
If you’re living with heart disease, you’ve surely heard that you’re at higher risk for developing severe symptoms of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus.
Current research suggests this high-risk group includes people who have survived a stroke or are living with coronary heart disease, high blood pressure (aka hypertension), or another heart condition.
Sobering news, for sure, but you’re not powerless. In fact, taking a few simple precautions goes a long way toward protecting yourself. Deep breath—you’ve got this.
Defense Move #1: Know What You’re Up Against
The virus targets the lungs, but there’s a strong connection between heart disease and COVID-19. When your lungs take a direct hit, a compromised heart is like the innocent bystander. The harder your lungs have to work, the more difficult is becomes for your heart to send oxygenated blood throughout the body.
In addition, COVID-19 creates a tremendous amount of inflammation in the body. According to a recent report in JAMA Cardiology, this includes the veins, arteries, and heart muscle, causing an irregular heartbeat (known as arrhythmia).
Previous coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS, were associated with inflammation of the heart muscle, resulting in heart attack and rapid-onset heart failure. Basically, the virus limits the heart’s ability to pump blood efficiently.
Defense Move #2: Assume It’s Everywhere
“Assume everyone around you has it and that you’re at risk,” says Suzanne Steinbaum, D.O., a New York City–based cardiologist and national spokesperson for the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women campaign.
“People can be a carrier and not really know that they have it, or they recover very quickly,” Dr. Steinbaum continues. “So the more we stay away from each other [during the pandemic], the better.”
In addition, Dr. Steinbaum suggests sticking with your treatment—and if you hear anything about any medications that you are taking, discuss it with your cardiologist first. For example, early in the outbreak, there were reports that patients who take renin-angiotensin system (RAS) blockers, particularly angiotensin II type 1 receptor blockers (ARBs), may be more susceptible to the virus.
“The American Heart Association came out with guidelines that said if you’re taking it, keep taking it,” she says, “We don’t know enough about this.”
Hopefully, we will know more soon. At the end of March, the American Heart Association (AHA) released $2.5 million to fast track research investigating COVID-19’s effect on the heart and the brain.
This is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines are incredibly important. “Prevention requires significant precautions,” Dr. Steinbaum says. “Social distancing, hand-washing, and all that other stuff that we keep talking about are the most effective ways to stay safe.”
- Clean high-touch areas of your home (door knobs, light switches, faucets, fridge handles, remotes)
- Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth—the main entry points for the virus
- Wear a face covering when you go out in public
- Avoid unnecessary travel
Defense Move #3: Adapt Your Routines
Instead of binge-watching or binge-eating all day, Dr. Steinbaum suggests focusing on your mental strength and fortitude.
“How you perceive this outbreak and how you take care of yourself is psychological as much as it is physical,” she says, “because they’re linked together.”
Depression, anxiety, and lack of sleep are major risk factors for heart disease, so Dr. Steinbaum tells all of her patients this is the time for stress management.
Start by sticking (at least loosely) to a schedule—that includes getting enough sleep, showering, and changing out of your PJs. Even if you’re no longer commuting to work because of a community shutdown, sticking to your morning and evening routines will give you a sense of normalcy and keep your body clock set.
Next up, eat well. “There’s no reason to binge on anything,” she says, while acknowledging “we’ve all probably done some of that! It’s time to put the potato chips away.”
Finally, Dr. Steinbaum suggests moving every day. “There’s a lot we can do without going to a gym, and we have to start doing that,” she says. “Walk in place, dance, and do jumping jacks—every day for 30 minutes, get up and do something to get your heart rate up.”
Defense Move #4: Check in with Your Cardiologist
If there are COVID-19 cases in your area, your doctor may have specific instructions they’d like you to follow. Give them a call to share any concerns or questions you might have.
And remember, if you feel any of the following symptoms, call your doctor or seek emergency care right away:
- Crushing chest pain, including huge pressure on the chest or feeling like you can’t breathe
Defense Move #5: Have a Sick Plan
These are the telltale signs of COVID-19, according to the CDC:
- Cough (especially a dry cough)
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle pain
- Sore throat
- New loss of taste or smell
If you experience any combination of these symptoms—or if your symptoms are getting worse—call your doctor right away.
“The first thing that’s going to happen when you get sick is you’re probably going to get a fever and maybe a cough,” says Dr. Steinbaum.
If that cough gets worse and there’s shortness of breath, she adds, get medical attention right away. When you or your loved one calls 911, explain the history of your underlying heart problems, as well as your current COVID-19 symptoms. Also mention the medications you’re taking.
That last part is quite important. Knowing the medications you’re taking, what you’re allergic to, and medical history will enable any physician, nurse, or first-responder to care for you.
“They’re going to know side effects of medications,” Dr. Steinbaum explains. “They’re going to understand that if you have a decreased heart function due to heart failure and are on certain drugs, maybe albuterol [a first-line inhaled medication] is not the best choice for you.”
This is a case of “more is more”—as in, the more information you can provide, the better.
That being said, don’t play doctor and try the last COVID-19 drug cocktail that may be circulating over the Internet, as many of these have dire consequences on the heart.
“Don’t try anything on your own, especially if you have heart disease,” Dr. Steinbaum says. “Talk to your doctor or go to the emergency room—get help from the people who are dealing with this right now.”
The information in this story is accurate as of press time and posting. Because the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, we encourage readers to follow the news and recommendations for their own communities by using the resources from the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department.