Atrial fibrillation and covid. Here’s what you still need to know about the surprising connection.
Shortness of breath. Fever. Cough. Ventilators. These words inundated the news for much of 2020 – 2021. While the world discussed taking two weeks to “flatten the curve,” it quickly became apparent that Covid-19 had booked an extended stay. Many people donned their masks, hoping to protect themselves and others from this dangerous respiratory illness. Yet, fast forward nearly two years, and despite promises of a vaccine cure, very little has changed.
What is different, however, is our understanding of the coronavirus. What we once thought was predominantly an illness of the lungs has turned out to be a systemic disease that impacts all body systems, including the heart. For many, Covid and AFib go hand-in-hand. While intricately linked, there are ways to protect yourself from both.
Covid-19 and the heart
Covid-19 has long been thought of as a disease that predominantly impacts the respiratory system. However, while cough and shortness of breath are certainly symptoms of Covid-19, its impacts extend well beyond the respiratory system. Many patients with Covid-19 develop heart conditions, including atrial fibrillation.
The mechanisms by which arrhythmias develop due to Covid-19 are not yet fully understood. Scientists have long speculated that there may be a viral component to the development of AFib, and perhaps Covid-19 is no different. Evidence exists that the virus is capable of damaging the heart muscle directly.
Other studies suggest that Covid-19 heart damage results from high levels of inflammation in the body. As the body’s immune system works to combat the virus, the inflammatory process damages the heart and the lining of the blood vessels.
Finally, any infection makes the heart work harder. To fight the unwanted invader, the body releases chemicals that cause inflammation. As a result, the body develops a fever, elevating the heart rate and blood pressure. Lung congestion increases the heart’s effort as well. Fluid imbalances and low oxygen levels add to its work. The added stress on the cardiovascular system can be overwhelming, especially if a heart is already weak.
Does Covid-19 cause AFib?
There is still so much we don’t know about the coronavirus. However, increasing evidence suggests a strong link between the virus and atrial fibrillation. A large study of close to 22,000 hospitalized Covid-19 patients found that approximately 11 percent had AFib. The incidence of AFib was higher in patients with more severe cases of the virus.
Many Covid-19 patients first experience AFib while infected with the virus. For example, one study found that new-onset AFib occurred in 12.5 percent of hospitalized Covid patients. The authors noted potential triggers for new-onset AFib in the hospital included low blood pressure, poor oxygen, fluid imbalances, and blood pressure medication. Another recent study found that steroids, a common drug used to treat Covid-19 in the hospital, can increase the risk of AFib.
No study has definitively concluded that Covid-19 causes AFib directly. However, evidence suggests that contracting the virus increases the odds of developing the heart arrhythmia. Additionally, since most studies occur in a hospital setting, there is very little data on the impact that having Covid-19 has on AFib in an outpatient setting. Therefore, it’s entirely possible, and even likely, that Covid-19 has triggered AFib in some people without their knowledge.
Does AFib increase your risk of Covid?
Age is not your friend when it comes to Covid-19 or AFib. The risk of diagnosis for both conditions increases with age. As chronic illness is stressful for the body, it often puts individuals at higher risk of developing other infections.
Research is still emerging on the exact link between AFib and Covid-19. Individuals with AFib suffer from various symptoms that impact the lymphatic system, such as poor blood circulation, fluid buildup, and low blood pressure. Additionally, individuals with AFib may be less active. As such, immunity is sometimes lower in those with AFib.
Additionally, while AFib itself has not been identified as a risk factor for contracting Covid-19, many individuals with AFib have other comorbidities that could increase the risk. Most people with AFib have additional risk factors such as high blood pressure, obesity, and other metabolic issues.
While AFib might not increase the risk of Covid, individuals with cardiac disease are at a higher risk for severe complications from the virus. In a recent study, researchers followed over 3,100 Covid-19 patients with pre-existing AFib. They found that patients with the arrhythmia were 62 percent more likely to suffer a major cardiac event than those without AFib. What’s more, AFib patients were 40 percent more likely to die from Covid-19. The findings confirmed previous studies suggesting that when compared to those with a healthy heart, AFib patients who get Covid-19 face significantly higher unfavorable outcomes, including death.
I’ve recovered from Covid. Am I in the clear?
Individuals who have recovered from Covid have a reason to celebrate. Not only were they healthy enough to survive the illness, but they now have antibodies protecting them from reinfection for the foreseeable future.
Our bodies are innately intelligent, and natural immunity will always supersede acquired immunity achieved by vaccinations. While studies surrounding how long immunity lasts after infection vary, one thing is certain: individuals who have had Covid-19 have low rates of reinfection.
A new study concluded that individuals with natural immunity have much higher protection against reinfection than the vaccinated. For the study, individuals previously infected with Covid-19 had a 10.5 per 100,000 infection rate four to six months following recovery. On the other hand, vaccinated individuals had a 69.2 per 100,000 case rate. While the research still needs peer review, it aligns with other studies.
So, if you’ve already had Covid-19, you are in the clear, right? Not necessarily. Long-term symptoms of Covid can linger well past the infectious state. These “long-haulers” suffer from fatigue, headaches, brain fog, and cardiac disorders. Even a year later, recovered individuals have significantly higher rates of heart problems. A study found that those who survived Covid-19 had a 79 percent higher risk of having AFib than those who did not have Covid.
While recovery from Covid-19 is worth celebrating, it’s important to address the factors that may have made you more susceptible in the first place.
Blood clots: a shared complication
Individuals with atrial fibrillation are at increased risk for blood clots. Although by a different mechanism, Covid-19 also increases the risk for blood clots. In both conditions, the risk for blood clots increases if the individual has other comorbidities such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or obesity. The effect of having both diseases at the same time has on blood clots is not yet completely known. However, one could assume that the risk for blood clots goes up substantially with both conditions.
What can we do to lessen our susceptibility to viruses?
Sadly, many people in our society have handed their health over to others, and the results are tragic. The best way to protect yourself from viruses is to enhance your immune system. Ironically, many things that will help guard against viruses are also heart-protective. You can bulletproof your immune system by following these practices:
- Eat organic food
- Get plenty of sunshine
- Increase your activity
- Get quality sleep
- Reduce stress
- Spend time in nature
- Avoid toxic chemicals
- Reduce EMF exposure
- See your chiropractor
We always prefer a preventative approach to a reactive one, and there’s no time like the present to embrace this philosophy. The good news is that both Covid and AFib are often preventable through a healthy lifestyle. Get connected with one of our expert health coaches who can help you create an effective, practical action plan to boost your immune system and allow you to live your healthiest life.
Eat well, Live well, Think well
Medical Review: Dr. Lauren Lattanza 2022