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The COVID-19 virus does not discriminate. It can impact any individual, of any age. While some populations are more susceptible to infection, having a chronic condition does not necessarily put you in that category.
However, having a condition like heart disease can make you more likely to experience complications from a COVID-19 infection.
“Contracting the infection has the same odds as anyone else, but the complication rates and subsequent mortality from the infection can be greater in heart patients,” states Dr. Tommy Lee, Interventional Cardiologist at Dignity Health.
The way COVID-19 infection affects the lungs is generally where the trouble starts. As oxygen levels drop, patients develop a severe inflammatory response—which causes blood pressure to drop, further taxing the heart.
“Immunocompromised, elderly, or frail patients can suffer greatly from an infection. A lot of other heart conditions can make the infection even worse. Some people have rhythm disorders such as Brugada syndrome, and patients who have congenital heart disease, they suffer more because of the drop in the oxygen and resulting effects,” explains Dr. Lee.
In patients who have atrial fibrillation (Afib), heart rates may become more difficult to control. These patients are typically elderly and have other comorbidities. Consequently, they also have greater risk of complications from the infection.
Health systems like Dignity Health have done a tremendous job of reducing risk of exposure, should individuals with pre-existing heart conditions need to go to the hospital. However, there are also options to visit with your doctor that don’t involve face-to-face contact.
“If you are in doubt of what's going on with your body, you should always call your doctor. There are so many avenues to connect with your physicians today. We have phone visits, video visits, and of course every doctor is available to see you in their office. We’ve implemented measures to protect you and the staff when you come to the doctor's office,” assures Dr. Lee. “So, never hesitate to contact your doctor. Certainly, if you have symptoms such as fever, shortness of breath, and cough, you should definitely seek some kind of medical attention.”
In regards to medications that could potentially address COVID-19, Dr. Lee cautions against an uninformed approach.
“There are efforts going into research, into medications that could help with this infection. But, we also have to consider possible medication interactions. Be sure to tell your doctor what medications you’re currently on, and be complete with your lists,” he advises.
Rhythm disorders, in particular, can be worsened with some of the drugs that may be used for COVID-19, such as hydroxychloroquine. In instances where this drug is administered, monitoring via EKG is critical.
“If the doctors don't know about your underlying heart condition and your heart rhythm conditions, it may make treatment more difficult. People who are more susceptible to rhythm disorders absolutely need to be careful,” adds Dr. Lee.
Patients with pre-existing conditions can do a lot on their own to prevent risk of infection. Social distancing, washing hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing to protect others, and avoiding touching your eyes, nose, or mouth all help decrease the chance of the virus entering your body.
Dr. Lee also advises taking steps to keep your immune system healthy, such as eating fresh vegetables and fruits, limiting sugar and alcohol, and staying hydrated. He encourages people to get fresh air and exercise, not just for physical health but for mental health as well—an area of growing concern.
“I think this pandemic has really changed society and probably will change it for a long period of time,” he notes. “Keeping up with normal activities will be helpful for your mental health. Finally, I know that you have to keep up with news, to actually understand what's going on in the world, but having too much news can be detrimental. So, keep up with the news and understand what's happening, but don't keep it on all day.”
**To listen to an interview on this topic with Dr. Tommy Lee, Interventional Cardiologist at Dignity Health, visit dignityhealth.org/bakersfield/podcasts or listen on your favorite podcast app.