Woman holding a stethoscope and heart shaped figure

During the novel coronavirus pandemic, the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) continues to care for the health and well-being of people in Maryland, especially those with underlying conditions, such as heart disease, that may put them at higher risk.

In addition to the virus itself, there is risk that those with previously diagnosed or new heart problems are not seeking medical attention as needed.

UMMS heart care teams across the state are still seeing patients with urgent or emergent conditions. If you feel chest pain or the symptoms of a heart attack, call 911 immediately. Learn more about when to go to the hospital in an emergency.

Coronavirus and the Heart

The heart and lung work together in the body to maintain oxygenation. When the lung is affected by a respiratory illness like novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the heart may also be affected. The heart must work hard to pump blood, which may be even more difficult for someone with heart disease.

Coronavirus Risk and Heart Problems

If you have any form of cardiovascular disease, you should be more cautious about COVID-19, practicing social distancing and other ways to prevent yourself from getting coronavirus.

Some heart patients may have a higher risk of contracting the disease, and some may be more prone to complications if they get it. In addition, the virus can cause heart muscle or vessel damage, resulting in severe problems.

Risk of Infection

Older people may have weaker immune response systems that put them at higher risk of infection. These patients should take extra precautions and continue taking their medications, unless otherwise advised by their doctor.

Younger patients with only high blood pressure may not be at significantly higher risk compared to others.

Risk of Complications If Infected

Generally, people over 65 years old with coronary artery disease or high blood pressure (often more prevalent in men) may be at greater risk of severe outcomes. These people and anyone with underlying conditions that heighten their risk for complications should take extra precautions to avoid the virus.

People with heart disease or those who have had a stroke are already at a higher risk of complications from COVID-19. The virus may damage the heart and slow down a patient's blood flow to the heart and brain.

Patients with congenital heart disease, especially in those whose congenital defects have not been surgically corrected, may be at a higher risk of complications if affected by COVID-19, as their blood circulation has already been compromised.

People with peripheral artery disease (PAD) are at increased risk of complications from COVID-19 because many of these people also have diabetes and heart disease, which are among the more critical underlying conditions that worsen COVID-19 infection outcomes.

COVID-19 Symptoms and Heart Patients

Symptoms from lung injury or disease are the same for people with and without heart disease.

If you experience coronavirus symptoms, you should contact your doctor. You may also call UMMS Nurse Call Line for guidance about your symptoms and how to get tested for coronavirus.

It is important to understand that some lung symptoms are also similar to those of heart problems—such as shortness of breath and chest discomfort—and do not always indicate COVID-19. These can indicate a serious heart problem that requires medical attention.

If you experience severe breathing problems, have lasting chest pain or pressure, your lips or face turn bluish or you get confused, you should call 911 immediately.

Getting Help for Heart Attacks and Strokes

Heart attacks and strokes are medical emergencies that need to be addressed as soon as you recognize symptoms. Call 911 or go to an emergency room.

The stay-at-home order is an important part of limiting coronavirus spread, but it does not apply to people experiencing medical emergencies.

Outcomes for both a heart attack or a stroke are heavily tied to how quickly care is received, so do not be afraid to go to the hospital if you experience symptoms of either condition. Hospitals are still safe places to go for care.

Symptoms of heart attack can include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Feeling weak, light-headed or faint
  • Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck or back
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms or shoulders
  • Shortness of breath

Symptoms of stroke can include:

  • Weakness in the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Confusion, trouble speaking or difficulty understanding speech
  • Difficulty seeing in one or both eyes
  • Trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or lack of coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

Protecting Yourself

Because people with heart disease are at higher risk, they need to take extra precautions to stay safe in this pandemic.

Avoiding the Virus

If you have a cardiovascular condition, be especially vigilant about protecting yourself from the virus.

Pay extra attention to handwashing, do not touch your face, eyes or nose, and wear a mask or covering on your face for precaution. If you can't have groceries or other essentials delivered to you follow these grocery shopping safety tips.

Practicing Heart-Healthy Lifestyle

Life in a pandemic is stressful, but now is not the time to let heart-healthy habits lapse. Being home may give you the opportunity to pay more attention to your health.

  • Stay active inside the house. If you have exercise equipment, continue to use it. If not, get exercise by walking around the house or going up and down the steps works — just be active.
  • Take this chance to modify your diet. Change your cooking habits and eat healthy meals that benefit you in the long term.
  • Manage your stress. The added stress of the pandemic is an opportunity for you to assess your stress levels and whether your stress management techniques are effective.
  • Quit smoking. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness. Smokers may have reduced lung capacity, which will put them more at risk. Plus, the act of bringing a cigarette to your mouth provides a chance for the virus to be transmitted. Now is the time to quit smoking.

Taking Heart Medications

Patients should continue taking their medications. We recommend patients refill at least a 90-day supply. In the short term, you may have the medications mailed to you via your pharmacy to limit pharmacy visits and unnecessary exposures.

ACE Inhibitors and ARBs

There is a debate regarding certain antihypertensive medications, ACE inhibitors (angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors or brand name Lisinopril) and ARBs (angiotensin receptor blocker or brand name Losartan) that can make people prone to COVID-19 infection.

However, there has not been enough evidence to suggest this is true. So patients should continue with the medications unless they are otherwise advised by their doctors.