The increasing speed of the COVID-19 spread has put an immense pressure on global healthcare systems.
Since the introduction of the new COVID-19 variant— Omicron in November 2021, experts are trying to learn more about the variant, how it affects populations, and the risks it poses in the long run. So far, experts and researchers are beginning to understand that the Omicron variant is highly transmissible which might mean an increase in cases, hence more hospitalizations and deaths.
The predominant symptoms of the Omicron variant include headache, tiredness, throat pain, dry cough, fever, and loss of appetite. It seems to be affecting the upper respiratory system more aggressively as compared to the lungs. But the real question remains, is it affecting the heart?
About Omicron: The Variant of Concern
Initially identified in South Africa, the Omicron variant has a large number of mutations. This means that the variant acts much differently than the variants already circulating. Various studies suggest that the new variant is “mild” in its severity as compared to the previous variants. Its symptoms usually resemble the common cold and some of the most prominent symptoms include:
- Runny Nose
- Sore throat
However, according to a member of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which helps guide the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decisions on vaccines, these symptoms are simply based on earlier reports of the cases and are not scientific studies. Currently, we have a very limited understanding of the Omicron variant and most of the information comes from observations. What’s more, the information may only reflect certain segments of the population that are young and otherwise healthy, and those who are fully vaccinated.
Even though we observe lower rates of hospitalizations, the virus is spreading much faster than anticipated. Despite the decline in severity, if there are three times more cases. This will result in more hospitalizations and deaths than what we previously saw with Delta.
Connecting the Dots: How Does COVID-19 Affect the Heart?
As observed in the previous variants, it was found that the virus did cause severe cardiac issues that resulted in heart failure and heart damage. Some form of heart damage was also observed in those who were not severely affected by COVID-19.
There are multiple ways for the SARS-CoV-2 virus to damage the heart muscle.
– Inflammatory Reaction
If the COVID-19 infection is severe enough, it could cause the body’s immune system to overreact to the infection, releasing large amounts of inflammatory molecules. These molecules are known to damage multiple organs, including the heart. It is known to reduce the heart’s ability to pump blood and could result in cardiac issues.
– Heart Injury
The virus might attack the heart cells and indirectly harm the heart by disrupting the balance between oxygen supply and demand. In about one-quarter of the patients hospitalized due to COVID-19, we observe elevated levels of the enzyme “troponin”. This finding indicates heart injury.
– Weakening of the Heart & Blood Clots
Fever and infection are known to cause an increase in the heart rate, which only increases more work for the weakened heart. The drops and spikes in blood pressure can put stress on the heart that may lead to greater demand of oxygen supply to the heart and ultimately heart damage. Many a time, inflammation caused due to the COVID infection activates the body’s clotting mechanisms. This in turn disrupts the blood vessel linings with the formation of blood clots in the blood vessels including the arteries of the heart, which cuts off its supply of blood and oxygen. When oxygen demand exceeds its supply, the heart muscle is damaged.
In the case of the Omicron wave, very little is known about it so far. Over the past 2 months, experts say there haven’t been any cardiac symptoms reported so far. However, it is still too early to determine whether or not Omicron can cause inflammation of the heart which we had seen in the case of the Delta variant.
Will the Vaccines Provide Any Protection?
Naturally, one of the most important questions from the vaccinated is, “Will the COVID vaccine protect me from Omicron?”
According to the CDC, COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing infection, serious illness, and even death. However, since vaccines are not 100% effective at preventing infection, some people who are fully vaccinated will still get COVID-19. It is clear for those vaccinated, the severity of the illness and chances of hospitalization or death reduces significantly. However, what we don’t have information on is the effect the Omicron variant could have on the unvaccinated.
With some of the earlier variants like Delta, vaccines were quite effective in curbing severe illness, hospitalizations, and death. The recent emergence of the Omicron variant has made it all the more important to get vaccinated and to get the booster shots.
Whether COVID vaccines will need updating to be more specifically effective against Omicron is unknown, and will likely be a decision after all scientific data has been collected.
Post-COVID Heart Care
If you’ve recently suffered from COVID-19, should you be worried? Are heart issues likely to show up somewhere down the line?
Unfortunately, there are no clear answers to this yet. All of the COVID-19 survivors from 2019 are still recovering from the condition. It is hard to know exactly how the virus could affect the heart in the long run and this is one of the many concerns researchers and doctors are working on figuring out.
If you experience rapid heartbeats or palpitations post-COVID-19 infection, you should consult your doctor. A temporary rise in heart rate could be the result of a variety of factors, including dehydration, the aftermath of being very ill, and prolonged inactivity. Make sure you’re getting enough water, especially if you’re suffering from a fever. The stress of the pandemic and social turmoil can impair the heart muscle and cause “broken heart syndrome” or, or Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy.
To strive for a happy and healthy heart, be sure to keep yourself hydrated. Meditating or doing yoga can do wonders for your mental and physical health, including heart health. Our minds have taken a toll from the stress, uncertainty, and chaos that has come with the pandemic but be sure to take the time for yourself and look after your body and mind.
There is still a lot to learn about the lasting effects COVID-19 has had on the heart. In most of the survivors, the virus has left behind some heart damage that needs to be monitored. According to a German study, MRIs were conducted in about 100 COVID-19 survivors. Out of the hundred, 78 survivors showed abnormal findings. There seemed to be evidence of inflammation and scarring on the heart muscle. However, due to comparison groups, this study was limited.
There is a need for larger and more detailed clinical research studies that help doctors and researchers understand more about the risks associated with post-COVID infection.