Half of COVID-19 patients with raised levels of one protein experience heart damage

COVID-19 is a dangerous respiratory infection, which can lead to severe complications. One of such complications is heart damage. Scientists at UCL found that more than 50% of patients hospitalised with COVID-19, who had raised levels of a protein called troponin, have some heart damage.

Having in mind that troponin levels are raised in 10-40 % of hospitalised COVID-19 patients those numbers appear to be quite big.

Cutaway view of a human heart. Image credit: Patrick J. Lynch via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.5)

Many people who recover from COVID-19 without lasting effects tend to downplay the severity of the disease. Meanwhile others who experienced complications of COVID-19 are encouraging people to take all precautionary measures to avoid this infection. Because it can be very dangerous. A lot of people are experiencing fatigue, shortness of breath, headaches and other lasting symptoms. However, some of them might be more difficult to notice, such as heart damage.

Troponin is a protein, which is released into the bloodstream when the heart muscle is injured – like in a case of a heart inflammation or some blocked artery. A lot (10-40 %) of hospitalized COVID-19 patients do have raised troponin levels.

Raised troponin levels are associated with worse outcomes in COVID-19 patients. Scientists researched 148 patients from six acute hospitals, who all had increased troponin levels. They performed MRI scans looking for heart damage and found that 54 % of these people had some degree of myocardial injury, including inflammation of the heart muscle,  scarring or death of heart tissue or restricted blood supply to the heart. Or combinations of several of these conditions. In other words, COVID-19 patients with raised troponin levels usually experience some degree of heart damage.

Heart damage, even if it is not severe, is a scary thing to have. However, scientists note that at least in the cases included in this research the situation was not as bad as it might sound initially. Professor Marianna Fontana, lead researcher of the study, said: “The pattern of damage to the heart was variable, suggesting that the heart is at risk of different types of injury. Importantly, we detected only a small amount of ongoing injury and the heart’s pumping function was not impaired in the vast majority of cases.” However, scientists will still have to think about it a bit more and see if the heart damage can be avoided.

Although it doesn’t seem to be severe, heart damage is never a good thing. Scientists and medical professionals will have to find ways to address it and hopefully COVID-19 patients will not have lasting effects. For now observable heart damage isn’t usually affecting heart’s function, but no one can say for sure if it won’t come back to haunt these people in a decade or two.

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