New preliminary research found that COVID-19 infection can increase oxidative stress and inflammation in heart tissue. It can also disrupt calcium ions which may lead to heart rhythm disturbances.
Scientists and doctors already understand that COVID-19 can affect the heart. For example, recent research found a 55% higher rate of heart attack, stroke, heart inflammation, and heart rhythm disturbances among people with COVID-19.
Despite the known heart implications of COVID, scientists are still unclear about how the SARS-CoV-2 virus damages heart tissue.
Now, in a new preliminary study, researchers found that COVID impacts the heart at a cellular level by causing inflammation, oxidative stress, and changes in a protein that regulates calcium in the heart.
The scientists presented their results on February 20 at the 67th Annual Biophysical Society Meeting in San Diego, California.
To investigate the impact COVID has on the heart, the research team looked at heart tissue from individuals who had COVID-19 and made several key observations.
First, they noticed an increase in oxidative stress, which can reduce cells’ ability to detoxify harmful substances. In addition, they also observed an increase in signs of inflammation in the tissue. Moreover, the team discovered unfavorable changes in RyR2 — a protein that helps regulate calcium ions in the heart.
This disruption in calcium ion regulation can cause problems with how the heart muscle contracts resulting in irregular heartbeats, palpitations, or heart failure.
Upon further investigation using COVID-infected mice, the scientists observed patterns in mouse heart tissue consistent with what they found in human hearts. Specifically, they saw changes in proteins expressed by heart cells, immune cell infiltration, heart cell death, blood clots, and collagen deposition — which indicates tissue injury.
The team also detected signs of cardiomyopathy — a condition that makes the heart less efficient at pumping blood.
According to a news release, Andrew Marks, M.D., a cardiologist and biophysics professor at Columbia University who was involved in the research, said, "the more awareness you build around particular aspects of a disease, the more likely you are to improve the care of patients. And doctors should be aware of heart changes related to COVID-19 infections and should be looking for them."
Warning signs of COVID-related heart problems
For someone currently ill with COVID, or a person who has had the disease, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms that may indicate heart problems. Some of these signs include heart palpitations, irregular heartbeats, and swelling of the legs, feet, and ankles. If these occur, it’s best to make an appointment with a healthcare provider so they can evaluate the symptoms.
However, symptoms of a heart attack include:
- Chest pain, squeezing sensations, pressure, or discomfort
- Indigestion or heartburn
- Nausea or vomiting
- Pain in the arm, upper back, or neck pain
- Extreme fatigue
- Shortness of breath
If these symptoms occur, seek medical help immediately by calling 911 or going to the nearest hospital emergency room.
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