What Athletes Should Know About COVID-19 and the Heart

December 14, 2020

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Brett Sealove, M.D., FACC, RPVI contributes to topics such as Cardiac/Heart Health.

There have been a lot of headlines about how COVID-19 affects the heart and concern about what this means for athletes who contract the disease. Although COVID-19 mostly affects the lungs, studies show that it can have effects on the heart that may continue after a person recovers.

Beyond the Lungs

COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory disease, but it can cause an overactive immune response, which can lead to increased inflammation throughout the body. This might include inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) or inflammation of the covering of the heart (pericarditis). Some COVID-19 patients also have experienced irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmias) and other cardiovascular complications.

“The involvement of the heart in COVID-19 was recognized a few months into the pandemic, but it was thought that this mainly occurred in patients with severe illness,” says Brett Sealove, M.D., medical director of wellness and prevention at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. “We now know that these effects are more common than scientists initially suspected.”

For instance, one German study looked at the hearts of 100 patients who had recently recovered from COVID-19. Some of the patients had been hospitalized, but most recovered at home. They found evidence of ongoing heart inflammation in 60 percent of the patients. It’s important to note that not every patient requires additional cardiac testing.

What About Athletes?

Another study suggests that COVID-19 could have lasting effects on the heart, even in mild cases in young, healthy people. The study of 26 student athletes at Ohio State University found that 15 percent of the athletes showed signs of heart inflammation as they recovered from COVID-19. None of the athletes had developed severe illness, and some didn’t feel any symptoms.

“It is not yet known whether COVID-19’s effects on the heart could cause permanent damage or might resolve on their own,” says Dr. Sealove. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health agencies are continuing to review data as it emerges.

What to Do if You Get COVID-19

The American College of Cardiology’s Sports & Exercise Cardiology Council released a statement in May 2020 advising healthy athletes who develop COVID-19 to:

  • rest for at least two weeks after your symptoms appear; and
  • tell your doctor if you notice any symptoms later, such as chest pain or shortness of breath.

Nonathletes who were healthy before contracting COVID-19 can follow a similar plan when they recover. “We want people to get back to exercising, but they should ease back into it and consult their doctor if they feel any discomfort,” says Dr. Sealove.

Prevention Is Best

“We still don’t know what long-term effects COVID-19 might have on the heart,” says Dr. Sealove. “The best strategy is to take precautions to prevent COVID-19 infection.”

Remember to:

  • Wear a mask in public places.
  • Stay at least six feet away from other people.
  • Frequently wash your hands.
  • Avoid crowds and confined or poorly ventilated spaces.

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The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.