The threat COVID-19 poses to CVD sufferers

New research from Columbia University in the US confirmed that COVID-19 may pose a significant risk to those suffering from cardiovascular disease (CVD).

Dr Anna-Marié Grebe, medical consultant to Pharma Dynamics – SA’s largest provider of cardiovascular medicine – says initially, efforts were focused on determining the respiratory effects of the virus, such as pneumonia and difficulty breathing, but clinicians are now investigating the detrimental impact that it can have on one’s heart.


“While COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, which primarily affects the lungs, the heart has to work harder to pump oxygen-rich blood to the body when the lungs aren’t functioning optimally. A fever – common in COVID-19 patients – also leads to a rapid heart rate, which may be compounded by low oxygen levels due to pneumonia.

“This added stress could increase the risk of developing heart failure or suffering a heart attack in patients with pre-existing heart problems, such as those with coronary heart disease where fatty material builds up inside the coronary arteries, restricting the flow of  blood, and thus oxygen and nutrients, to the heart. Myocarditis – inflammation of the heart muscle – has also been reported in some COVID-19 patients. This condition can affect the heart muscle and thus reduce the heart’s ability to pump. In addition, it may also affect its electrical system, causing abnormal heart rhythms,” she says.


For the thousands of South Africans that suffer from heart disease, this raises many questions.

Grebe says that it is of great importance to put the risks into perspective. “While information about COVID-19 is changing almost hourly, current evidence, released by the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, University of Minnesota and American Heart Association, indicates that the actual risk for patients with existing heart disease is not higher with COVID-19 than with seasonal influenza (or the flu) per se. However, the difference is in the infectious nature of COVID-19 and that there is currently no vaccine protecting against COVID-19 as with the flu.”


She stresses that there is no need to panic as 82% of cases are mild. “Basic preventative measures can and will go a long way to protect everyone, including those with existing heart disease.”

“While having heart disease doesn’t mean you are destined to get the virus or that you will develop a serious complication, prevention is the best.” Grebe emphasises that, while older adults with heart disease may do well to heed advice pertaining to prevention, even younger sufferers of CVD should exercise caution and adhere to current guidelines.


To reduce your risk of contracting COVID-19:

  • Wash hands often with soapy water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser as the virus spreads from person-to-person when someone with COVID-19 sneezes or coughs
  • Avoid touching your face (eyes, nose, and mouth) with unwashed hands
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze with a flexed elbow or a tissue, then throw the tissue in the bin
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces
  • Stay home, self-isolate and practice social distancing (1,5 to 2 m distance between you and someone else)
  • Take your chronic medication as prescribed by your doctor
  • Use 3-layer cloth masks when going out to buy food or appearing in public (medical masks should be reserved for use by healthcare professionals)


Grebe says CVD sufferers should seek immediate care once symptoms, such as fever, dry cough, trouble breathing, weakness, chest pain or discomfort are present. Do not exercise while symptomatic (even if you have only slight symptoms) and allow your body ample time to rest and recover. Do not postpone seeking medical advice out of fear or panic.


If you think you have COVID-19 and suffer from CVD you should:

  • Call your doctor to discuss testing. He/she will be able to advise you about what to do and where to go
  • You can also call the NICD helpline on 0800 029 999
  • Continue to take your prescription medication until you have consulted your doctor


“More than ever, it has become vital that people take better care of their hearts by doing the simple things, such as eating right, making exercise a daily habit, quitting smoking and limiting alcohol intake,” advises Dr Grebe.


Protect your heart by:

  • Exercising for about 20 to 30 minutes five to seven days a week.
  • Reduce stress by practicing deep breathing and relaxation techniques.
  • Get at least eight hours of sleep every night.
  • Eating healthily. Choose from more than 100 heart-healthy recipes from Cooking from the Heart
  • All the cooking from the heart recipes have been approved by the Heart and Stroke Foundation SA, are affordable and easy to make. Eating foods like fruit and vegetables that are rich in vitamins and minerals also keeps your immune system fighting-strong.

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