This article was originally published on March 27, 2020. It was updated on May 6, 2020 to reflect new information about this rapidly evolving situation.
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As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic evolves, scientists are learning more about the virus and how it affects us. From almost the beginning, medical experts have recognized that older adults and people with existing medical conditions — including heart disease — are at higher risk from the new coronavirus.
For the tens of millions of U.S. adults with heart disease, that warning raises a lot of questions.
“We’re learning a lot about this disease every day,” says cardiologist Paul Cremer, MD. “That creates uncertainty for patients and for healthcare providers, but we can make recommendations based on the best information we have so far.”
COVID-19 and the heart
The new coronavirus is a respiratory disease, meaning it mostly affects the lungs. But when the lungs aren’t working at full steam, the heart has to work harder to pump oxygen-rich blood around the body. That added stress can be dangerous for people with heart disease.
COVID-19 poses a greater risk to people who have underlying conditions, including:
- Coronary heart disease.
- High blood pressure.
- Previous stroke.
People in those groups may be at higher risk of catching COVID-19. They’re also more likely to develop severe symptoms if they get sick.
Older adults with heart disease may be particularly vulnerable. But if you have heart disease at any age, you should be aware of the possible risks from COVID-19. “There’s a lot we don’t know yet. But it’s reasonable to assume that anyone with heart disease, including younger patients, is also at higher risk,” Dr. Cremer says.
Coronavirus prevention for heart patients
Being at increased risk doesn’t mean you’re destined to get the disease — or that you will develop a serious case if you do catch it. But as usual, prevention is the best medicine.
“To reduce the odds of catching COVID-19, follow recommendations by the CDC, the WHO, and your local, state and federal governments,” Dr. Cremer says.
That means following best practices:
- Wash hands often using soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If you can’t get to a sink, use hand sanitizer that’s at least 60% alcohol.
- Avoid touching your face.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces you touch a lot, like doorknobs, light switches, phones and keyboards (to name a few).
- Stay home (especially if your community has advised residents to shelter in place).
- Practice social distancing. Aim to keep 6 feet between you and other people if you do have to go out in the community.
- Stock up on refills of your prescription medications.
What should you do if you think you have coronavirus?
If you develop possible COVID-19 symptoms such as a cough and fever, here’s what you should (and shouldn’t) do next, Dr. Cremer says:
Do: Call your doctor to discuss next steps
Different locales have different recommendations about who should be tested or hospitalized. Your doctor can advise you about what to do and where to go.
Don’t: Stop taking any of your prescription medications without speaking to a doctor
Some reports have suggested that certain heart medications might make it easier for the virus to multiply. But so far, there’s no evidence of that happening in human patients. Doctors are not recommending that patients make changes to their heart disease or high blood pressure medications, Dr. Cremer says.
“We don’t yet know how medications might affect the virus, but we do know it can be harmful if you stop taking the medications you use to control blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease or diabetes,” he says.
Protecting your heart during the pandemic
One of the biggest risks to heart disease patients from coronavirus has nothing to do with being infected, Dr. Cremer adds: “I worry that some patients won’t seek out the urgent care or emergency treatment they need.”
Some people who experience heart symptoms might be reluctant to go to a clinic or emergency room during a pandemic. But you shouldn’t ignore signs of cardiac emergencies. Heart attacks, dissections, heart failure and arrhythmias are still occurring. And early treatment for heart problems can save your life. “If you have any concerning heart symptoms, please seek out care,” he says.
Dr. Cremer advises seeking treatment or reaching out to your doctor if you have any new symptoms, including:
- Chest pain or discomfort.
- Trouble breathing.
- Loss of taste and smell.
- Sore throat.
- Muscle pain.
Maintain heart health for the future
Let’s be honest: During a global pandemic, it can be hard to stick to your usual routines. But maintaining a heart-healthy diet and exercise habits is as important as ever, Dr. Cremer says.
The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week — about 20 to 30 minutes, five to seven days a week.
“We have to be particularly cautious now in terms of social distancing, but it’s essential to get physical activity. Getting out for a walk is good for overall health, and also for our mental health as we’re dealing with this,” Dr. Cremer says.
While the pandemic won’t last forever, you need your heart for the long haul, he adds. “We’re going to get through this, so we shouldn’t lose sight of our long-term health.”