Common risk factors for cardiovascular disease include high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. But some additional risks to the human heart are hidden and unexpected. One example of this is a viral or bacterial infection that causes an inflammatory response in the body.
A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association linked infections, such as pneumonia and urinary tract infections, to an increased risk of heart attack or stroke within the following three months. “Severe cases of COVID-19 and the flu can also harm the heart and circulatory system,” noted Tony Lu, M.D., board-certified vascular surgeon with Houston Methodist Cardiovascular Surgery Associates at Sugar Land. “The infections increase the risk that fatty plaque built up in the blood vessels will rupture, leading to heart attack or stroke.”
Researchers discovered that many people who have died of COVID-19 had formed blood clots throughout their bodies, including in their smallest blood vessels. This unusual clotting can cause multiple complications, including heart attack and stroke.
INFLAMMATORY RESPONSE CAN LEAD TO BLOOD CLOTS
“Infections generally trigger an inflammatory reaction in the body,” explained Lu. “Inflammation is the body’s way of signaling the immune system to send infection-fighting cells to the site.” The body activates white blood cell production to help fight the infection, a process that increases the stickiness of platelets.
This can lead to the formation of blood clots that could block blood flow to the heart or brain.
- Experiencing a mild respiratory illness or other infection likely doesn’t pose a significant risk to your heart health. However, the risks go up with serious infections or when a person has underlying health issues or existing heart and vascular conditions. A recent study found that 1 in 8 adults hospitalized with flu experienced a sudden, serious heart complication.
TAKE ACTION TO PREVENT ILLNESS
Being proactive about health care can help prevent problems likes urinary tract infections, skin infections, respiratory illness and other infections. Bacterial infections may need treatment with an antibiotic, and viral infections may need treatment with an antiviral medication.
Lu recommends that patients take the following steps to keep themselves and their families healthy:
• Get recommended vaccines
• Stay home when sick
• Wash hands frequently
• Practice social distancing
• Wear a cloth mask in public
“Getting a flu shot is more important than ever because of COVID-19,” said Lu. “It’s especially important for people with certain underlying health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease and diabetes. People with these conditions are at higher risk of developing serious complications from flu. Many of these conditions also increase the risk for poor outcomes from COVID-19.”
To make an appointment with Dr. Tony Lu with Houston Methodist Cardiovascular Surgery Associates at Sugar Land or another cardiovascular specialist, visit houstonmethodist.org/spg or call 713.352.1820.
To learn more about Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital, go to houstonmethodist.org/sugarland or call 281.274.7500.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tony Lu, MD