With a recent surge in influenza, COVID-19, and other respiratory viruses, it’s critical to pay close attention to your heart—especially if you have heart disease or the risk factors for heart disease, according to experts at Mount Sinai Fuster Heart Hospital.

The recent surge can trigger cardiovascular complications from fever, dehydration, and increased inflammation, and Mount Sinai doctors are seeing a rise in these cases in all age groups, including patients in their 20s.

Patients with underlying cardiovascular disease and the associated risk factors are at increased risk. Inflammation can trigger heart attacks in people with coronary artery disease. It can also exacerbate heart failure symptoms and irregular or rapid heartbeats, leading to hospitalizations. 

Doctors have also seen post-viral myocarditis—inflammation around the heart that can progress to complications such as heart failure and cardiogenic shock—in otherwise healthy patients.

“If you get sick and have chest pain or are out of breath, and it’s getting worse—especially if you have an underlying heart condition or risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, or a family history of heart disease—don’t assume it’s not serious or just a viral syndrome. Consider seeing a health care provider right away, and call 911 if the symptoms of chest pain, dizziness, or shortness of breath develop,” says Icilma Fergus, MD, director of cardiovascular disparities for the Mount Sinai Health System, in a release. “Also, it is important to get the appropriate vaccinations to lessen severity of viral infections and inflammation. Viral syndromes are so commonplace that many people aren’t taking these viruses as seriously anymore.”

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among men and women in the United States. Nearly half of adults—more than 121 million people—have some type of cardiovascular disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 700,000 people die of heart disease annually, and 80% of these cases are preventable. 

Anyone can get heart disease, but people are more susceptible if they have cardiovascular risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, being overweight, and tobacco use. Age is also a factor, specifically for menopausal women (between 45 and 55) and men older than 55, and men with a family history also are at higher risk. Getting less than six hours of sleep a night may also contribute to poor outcomes.

Certain groups, including African American and Hispanic/Latino patients as well as new immigrants, may also be at higher risk of complications from untreated viral illnesses. However, the risk for cardiovascular disease in any population can be decreased by taking simple steps toward a healthier lifestyle.   

Tips for lowering the risk of heart disease:

  • Know your family history
  • Be aware of five key numbers cited by the American Heart Association: blood pressure, total cholesterol, HDL (or “good”) cholesterol, body mass index, and fasting glucose levels
  • Maintain a healthy diet, eating nutrient-rich food and eliminating sweets
  • Limit alcohol consumption to no more than one drink per day for women and men
  • Quit using tobacco or other inhaled substances, including both smoking and electronic cigarettes/vapes
  • Watch your weight and exercise regularly
  • Learn the warning signs of heart attack and stroke, including chest discomfort; shortness of breath; pain in the arms, back, neck, or jaw; breaking out in a cold sweat; and lightheadedness
  • Find practical ways to eliminate stress and focus on mental health

“Winter can raise cardiovascular risks in a number of ways, including due to flu season,” says Deepak L. Bhatt, MD, MPH, director of the Mount Sinai Fuster Heart Hospital and the Dr. Valentin Fuster Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in a release. “People with cardiovascular disease or multiple risk factors for heart disease are particularly susceptible to developing cardiac problems if they get really sick from a respiratory infection. Identifying and controlling cardiovascular risk factors, as well as basic measures to try to prevent infections, are ways to avoid a potential double whammy of a bad infection triggering a heart attack.”

Photo 33862756 © Candybox Images | Dreamstime.com