Heart disease and COVID-19: Your 5-step plan to help you stay healthy
If you’re living with heart disease, you may be at higher risk for developing severe symptoms of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus.
This high-risk group includes people who have survived a stroke or live with another heart condition like coronary heart disease or high blood pressure.
Taking a few extra, simple precautions goes a long way toward protecting yourself.
For starters, there are now three COVID-19 vaccines, from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, reaching the public. Be sure to get vaccinated as soon as you’re able. Currently, all Californians ages 12 and older are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. To find out where to schedule an appointment, visit My Turn.
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. The harder your lungs have to work, the harder it becomes for your heart to send oxygenated blood throughout the body. Basically, the virus limits the heart’s ability to keep up with getting enough oxygen in the blood to other organs.
In addition, COVID-19 creates a tremendous amount of inflammation in the body, including the veins, arteries, and heart muscle, according to a recent report in JAMA Cardiology. That can cause an irregular heartbeat (known as arrhythmia) or lead to blood clots.
Defense move #2: Assume it’s everywhere.
“Assume everyone around you has it and that you’re at risk,” says Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, a New York City–based cardiologist and national spokesperson for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign.
“People can be carriers and not really know that they have it,” Dr. Steinbaum says, particularly in unvaccinated people. And we can’t tell who has been vaccinated and who hasn’t. “So the more we stay away from each other [during the pandemic], the better.”
In addition, Dr. Steinbaum suggests sticking with your treatment. If you have any concerns about any medications that you are taking, discuss them with your cardiologist but do not stop taking medicine on your own.
This is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines are very important. “Prevention requires significant precautions,” Dr. Steinbaum says. “Social distancing, hand-washing, and wearing a mask are the most effective ways to stay safe.”
That includes masking up when you’re in public. The CDC’s most recent mask guidance includes:
- Wear a mask with a nose wire that fits snugly over your mouth, nose, and chin.
- Add a mask fitter over your mask.
- Use a cloth mask with multiple layers of fabric. Or layer a cloth mask over a disposable surgical mask to improve fit and protection.
- Clean high-touch areas of your home (doorknobs, light switches, faucets, fridge handles, remotes).
- Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth. These are the main entry points for the virus.
- Avoid unnecessary travel.
- Avoid large gatherings of people indoors.
Defense move #3: Adapt your routines.
Dr. Steinbaum suggests focusing on your mental strength.
“How you perceive this outbreak and how you take care of yourself is psychological as much as it is physical,” she says. “They’re linked together.” Depression, anxiety, and lack of sleep are major risk factors for heart disease, so Dr. Steinbaum tells 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 working from home, stick to your morning and evening routines. It 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. “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,” she says. “Walk in place, dance, do jumping jacks. Every day for 30 minutes, get up and do something to get your heart rate up.” Going on a walk or other outdoor exercise is also thought to be safe when not part of a large group.
Defense move #4: Check in with your cardiologist.
During the pandemic, 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:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle pain
- Sore throat
- New loss of taste or smell
If you have 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. If you or your loved one calls 911, share the history of your underlying heart problems, as well as your current COVID-19 symptoms. Also mention the medications you’re taking, and keep a list of them handy to share.
That last part is quite important. Knowing your medications, allergies, and medical history will help any physician, nurse, or first responder 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 and are on certain drugs, maybe albuterol [a first-line inhaled medication] is not the best choice for you.” The more information you can provide, the better.
“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. To limit the spread of the coronavirus, it’s important to continue practicing social distancing (keeping at least 6 feet away from people outside your household) and washing your hands frequently. You should also be appropriately masked per CDC guidelines. 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, their local public health department, and our COVID-19 member site.
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