Coronavirus patients can suffer irreversible heart damage as a result of their battle with the disease, a study of hospital patients has found.
More than half of infected patients who had heart scans while in hospital with Covid-19 showed abnormal changes to their organ.
One in eight had signs of ‘severe dysfunction’ in their heart and doctors couldn’t find any other explanation except the coronavirus.
In the UK around one in four people admitted to hospital with Covid-19 die of it but even survivors may be left with long-term illness, this research suggests.
The study, done by the British Heart Foundation, adds to concerns that coronavirus can cause widespread damage to the vital organs and leaves some ‘long-haulers’ with health problems that will last for months and even years after the infection.
Long-term effects can include coughing, shortness of breath and reduced lung capcity, and there is also evidence the virus can affect the brain and kidneys. A lung doctor who helped treat Boris Johnson said the virus is ‘this generation’s polio’.
One British Heart Foundation researcher referred to Covid-19 as a ‘multi-system disease’ that can spread all round the body.
Scientists studied echocardiogram scans from hospital patients around the world and found abnormalities that could only have been caused by Covid-19, they said (stock image of heart scan)
Professor Mark Dweck, who is also a cardiologist at the University of Edinburgh, said: ‘Covid-19 is a complex, multisystem disease which can have profound effects on many parts of the body, including the heart.
‘Many doctors have been hesitant to order echocardiograms for patients with Covid-19 because it’s an added procedure which involves close contact with patients.
‘Our work shows that these scans are important – they improved the treatment for a third of patients who received them.’
The study looked at 1,216 patients in hospitals in 69 countries around the world who had been given heart scans.
Fifty-five per cent of them showed signs of damaging changes to their hearts which were affecting how well they pumped blood – and most of them had had healthy hearts before.
A further 13 per cent of the patients showed severe dysfunction in their heart, which likely raised their risk of death or of having permanent illness.
UK LAUNCHES STUDY OF COVID-19’S LONG-TERM EFFECTS
Scientists in the UK will investigate the long-term effects of Covid-19 in a scientific study which launches this month.
The Department of Health has announced that up to 10,000 people will be involved in a study to look at how people who catch the coronavirus fare long-term.
Growing evidence suggests that even people who only get mildly sick may suffer long-lasting health effects including lung damage.
The UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has warned that Covid-19 patients could be left with ‘extreme tiredness and shortness of breath for several months’.
The study, led by researchers and doctors in Leicester, will look at how people’s mental health is affected by illness and whether factors like sex or ethnicity affect how well someone recovers from Covid-19.
Patients in the study, which will receive £8.4million in funding, will have medical scans, blood tests and lung samples so experts can look at how they are affected.
It comes as the NHS has announced it’s launched a long-term recovery service called ‘Your Covid Recovery’, which will offer online advice to the public and more specialised physio and mental health support to some patients from this summer.
Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said: ‘As well as the immediate health impacts of the virus it is also important to look at the longer-term impacts on health, which may be significant.
‘We have rightly focused on mortality, and what the UK can do straight away to protect lives, but we should also look at how Covid-19 impacts on the health of people after they have recovered from the immediate disease.’
Doctors and researchers in other studies have found that the virus can cause blood clots to form in the lungs and other vital organs.
Clots can be severely damaging and even fatal if they travel to their heart, brain and lungs.
Coronavirus is thought to damage the heart and circulation system by triggering harmful internal swelling, called inflammation, which puts extra strain on the body.
The study was only done on patients who had their hearts scanned, meaning it is not clear how coronavirus affects the hearts of people who aren’t critically ill.
Heart scans are only generally given to people who doctors already suspect have a heart problem, so the proportion of those with serious issues is particularly high in this group.
Professor Dweck added: ‘Damage to the heart is known to occur in severe flu, but we were surprised to see so many patients with damage to their heart with Covid-19 and so many patients with severe dysfunction.
‘We now need to understand the exact mechanism of this damage, whether it is reversible and what the long-term consequences of Covid-19 infection are on the heart.’
Professor Dweck and his colleagues said more coronavirus patients should have their hearts scanned so doctors can pick up on problems and treat them.
Because the scans – called echocardiograms – involve physical contact with a patient they are generally not done unless doctors suspect something is wrong.
But of the patients in the study, one in three had their treatment changed because of what medics picked up on the scans.
They were given heart failure drugs, for example, or had their fluid intake controlled more strictly. These changes in treatment may have saved lives, the scientists said.
People with heart disease are at a higher risk of dying if they catch the coronavirus than other people, data has shown – and research like this may shine a light on why.
If people’s hearts are already damaged, they may have less capacity to cope with and recover from further damage that the coronavirus can cause.
Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, associate medical director at the BHF, added: ‘Severe Covid-19 illness can result in damage to the heart and circulatory system.
‘We urgently need to understand more about why this is happening so we can provide appropriate care – both short and long term.
‘This global study – carried out at the height of the pandemic – shows that we must be on the lookout for heart complications in people with Covid-19 so that we can adapt their treatment, if needed.’
The long-term effects of the virus are increasingly coming to light now that the virus has been around for months and millions of people have recovered.
The UK’s Department of Health has now launched a study into how people get affected in the long run amid concerns they might suffer from breathing problems and mental health issues.
In March, one doctor who helped treat Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he was intensive care with the virus, likened the illness to polio.
Professor Nicholas Hart, a lung doctor at St Thomas’ Hospital, said on Twitter: ‘Covid-19 is this generation’s polio. Patients have mild, moderate and severe illness.
‘Large numbers of patients will have physical, cognitive and psychological disability post critical illness that will require long-term management.
‘We must plan ahead.’
The BHF study was published in the European Heart Journal – Cardiovascular Imaging.